by David Kerr
U.S. Military Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio says the collapse of Iraq’s Christian population is among the legacies of America's invasion in 2003.
“Yes, you can say in a certain sense that the invasion of Iraq did provoke this tremendous diminution of the Christian population in that country. And what the future holds, that still remains to be seen,” the archbishop for the armed forces told CNA during his visit to Rome on Jan. 16.
His comments come only a month after the final pull-out of U.S. troops from Iraq, where they remained following the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. Aid agencies estimate that over the course of eight years, the Catholic population of Iraq fell from over 800,000, to less than 150,000 now
Archbishop Broglio believes Catholicism suffered after the invasion because of a perceived closeness to its previous ruler. He said Saddam Hussein tended “to trust Catholics, and gave them positions of responsibility.” One prominent Iraqi Catholic was Hussein’s Foreign Minister Tarik Aziz.
And even if Catholics “weren’t particularly part of the regime, they became identified with the regime,” Archbishop Broglio said.
“Before, they were a minority that was protected, but now they are a minority that is not protected.”
As President Barack Obama withdrew the last U.S. troops from Iraq on Dec. 15, he said they were leaving behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant,” country.
But there are signs that Iraqi Christians' plight has worsened since then.
“At a time of increased political instability, we continue to receive disturbing reports,” said John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need on Jan. 20.
He said an attack took place earlier in the month against security personnel outside the residence of Kirkuk's Archbishop Louis Sako.
Archbishop Sako, who was indoors at the time, told Aid to the Church in Need that the situation is less stable now that U.S. troops are gone, with much of the turmoil stemming from the power struggle between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Pontifex says there is a “ticking bomb regarding Christianity in Iraq.”
“Few Christians, no matter how deep their roots are in the local society, feel able to withstand the pressure to leave.”
Fear of an attack forced Archbishop Sako to cancel the Chaldean Catholics' midnight Christmas celebration last month. Services were moved to the daytime, and Christians were warned not to display decorations outside their homes.
Nevertheless, it appears that many of the Catholics who fled Iraq would return if safety improved.
Monsignor John Kozar, president of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, recently spoke of the “strong determination” some Iraqi Catholics have to go back home. He recently visited Jordan, where many Christians from Iraq now reside.
“I think they have a yearning to return to the homeland, and that homeland for them means practicing their Chaldean-rite Christianity,” the monsignor said. “That has become very, very important to them.”