“Baghdad ha perduto la sua bellezza e non ne è rimasto che il nome.
Rispetto a ciò che essa era un tempo, prima che gli eventi la colpissero e gli occhi delle calamità si rivolgessero a lei, essa non è più che una traccia annullata, o una sembianza di emergente fantasma”
During the past month, the 2015 Synod of Bishops
on the family has been the dominant Catholic story in the world. The
gathering of 270 prelates in Rome drew massive coverage and commentary,
with many styling it as almost a “Vatican III” – maybe with a dash of
the Iowa caucuses thrown in, because of its political intrigue.
There’s a case to be made, however, that it wasn’t even the most important synod of Catholic bishops in October.
To be sure, the issues involved, such as whether divorced and civilly
remarried Catholics should be able to receive Communion, and how the
Church ought to think about gay and lesbian relationships, raised
important questions about the Catholic Church in the early 21st century:
its pastoral effectiveness and its relationship with the culture.
What was not at stake in any literal sense, however, was raw
survival. That clearly is the case with the Synodal Assembly of the
Chaldean Church in Iraq, which is taking place in Rome Oct. 24-29.
The Chaldean Catholic church is the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches in Iraq, presently numbering around 500,000 people.
In August, Iraqi Christians marked the grim one-year anniversary of an ISIS offensive in the Plains of Nineveh
in northern Iraq that broke out on Aug. 6-7, 2014 and left thousands of
Christians and Yazidis dead. It also drove an estimated 120,000
Christians into exile either inside the country, in places such as
Kirkuk and Erbil, or in refugee camps in nations such as Turkey and
Jordan. During the assault, churches, and monasteries were destroyed,
centuries-old Christian manuscripts were burned, and scores of
Christians were killed, often in staggeringly brutal fashion – flogged
to death, beheaded, and, in at least a few cases, reportedly crucified.
In that context, there are real questions about whether Christianity
is an endangered species in Iraq as well as in neighboring Syria, the
strongholds of ISIS and its self-declared caliphate.
The synod going on now brings together 21 Chaldean bishops
representing both the Middle East and the diaspora, predominantly in the
United States, Canada, and Australia. It was originally scheduled for
September in a suburb of Erbil in Iraq, but then postponed to coincide
with the synod on the family in Rome.
(Although no one quite wants to say so out loud, moving the meeting
to Rome also has an obvious security advantage. Under present
circumstances, bringing all the Chaldean bishops together in one
location inside Iraq creates an awfully tempting target.)
The bishops are discussing the fate of tens of thousands of Christian
refugees who fled the Nineveh Plains, both their short-term
humanitarian situation and also plans for their long-term future. The
tension is between sympathy for the utterly natural desire many of them
feel to get out of the country, versus trying to encourage them to hold
on so Christianity itself can endure.
Another agenda item is the situation of Chaldean priests who have fled the country without authorization,
including nine who settled in the United States, mostly in the San
Diego area. Chaldean Patriarch Raphael Louis Sako of Baghdad issued an order
in the fall of 2014 that those priests must return to set a good
example for their people, but several defied it, arguing that returning
under the present circumstances would be tantamount to a death sentence. Sako suspended the priests, but some are continuing to minister while they appeal to the Vatican.
Pope Francis addressed the Chaldean bishops on Monday, saying he
wanted to bring the Vatican’s “complete support and solidarity” to the
“Your visit enables me to renew my heartfelt appeal to the
international community to adopt every useful strategy aimed at bringing
peace to countries terribly devastated by hatred,” he said, decrying
what he called “the fanatical hatred sown by terrorism.”
Given that no Christian community on earth today faces a more lethal
threat than in Iraq and Syria, the outcome of the Chaldean synod ought
to be a front-burner concern for Catholics everywhere.
US Catholics in particular, however, have an obligation to take an
interest. Whatever one makes of the moral legitimacy of the 2003 US-led
war in Iraq, it’s undeniable that invasion created the context in which
widespread assaults on the country’s Christian minority are occurring.
A couple of weeks ago, Crux spoke to Sako
in Rome, both about the synod on the family and his own. Among other
points, he insisted that the United States ought to be willing to put
boots on the ground in Iraq as part of an international coalition or in
cooperation with the Iraqi government, in order to break the back of
“There’s no other way,” Sako said. “The United States has a moral responsibility, because they destroyed the country.”
Airstrikes alone, Sako said, won’t cut it.
“The Americans are saying [it will take] five years, 10 years, 30
years, and this language is encouraging ISIS [to think], ‘You can
stay’,” he said. “It’s discouraging Christians and other refugees, [who
are] thinking they can’t go back home now.”
One can agree or disagree with Sako’s call for military action, but
there’s no debate about the precariousness of the situation or the
responsibility of Americans, including American Catholics, to do
whatever they can to help.
In other words, Americans may need to rethink which Synod of Bishops in October 2015 is the real wake-up call.