To understand the current situation in Iraq — the evolving and
complex conflicts there, and the fear and resilience of its Christians —
one has to understand its past, which is often ignored or unknown in
the West, said a former papal representative to the country.
“History is itself a victory over ignorance, marginalization and
intolerance; it is a call for respect and to not repeat the mistakes of
the past,” said Cardinal Fernando Filoni in his book, “The Church in
The book is also “a testimonial” to the victims of “the Islamic
terrorism of ISIS,” he told the Christians and non-Christians he met
when Pope Francis sent him as his personal representative to encounter
and pray with these shaken communities that fled the Islamic State.
That brief visit in 2014 was a homecoming of sorts.
The Italian cardinal, now 71, lived in Iraq during a time of great
tension and turmoil. St. John Paul II made him the apostolic nuncio —
the pope’s diplomatic representative — to Iraq and Jordan in January
2001. Several months later, after 9/11, the United States administration
started building pressure against Iraq, pushing for military action.
St. John Paul firmly opposed military intervention and, despite the
fact that he sent peace-seeking missions to Washington and Baghdad, the
United States attacked.
“Not even the stern warning of the saint-pope could deter President
George W. Bush from his purpose,” the cardinal wrote. He said the day of
the invasion, March 19, 2003, became “a very sad day for Iraq and for
the whole world.”
The nunciature never shut down, not even during the airstrikes and occupation or the ensuing chaos of looting and revenge.
It was during his tenure there in Baghdad, which ended in 2006, that
Cardinal Filoni went through the nunciature’s archives, which housed “a
rich history” of documentation and letters, detailing the history of the
Vatican’s diplomatic relations with Iraq and the establishment of an
episcopal see in Baghdad in the 16th century.
“Naturally, this caught my eye,” he said, and the idea for a book emerged there in the wealth of material buried in an archive.
The book’s chapters take a historical overview of the church’s long
presence in Mesopotamia, dating back to the time of St. Thomas the
Apostle, and looks at how the expanding early Christian communities
there evolved, faced internal divisions and challenges, and still shared
their unique gifts.
Looking at the church’s journey in the past also made him realize:
“This is unknown to us. And so I thought, writing a book that traced,
especially for us in the West, the birth, the evolution of this history
up to present day could be … of service to Christianity in the Middle
East, particularly in Mesopotamia, which is suffering because of
expulsions, persecution or discrimination.”
Published first in Italian in 2015, The Catholic University of
America Press is releasing the English edition toward the end of July in
the United States and in mid-August in the United Kingdom.
The cardinal spoke to Catholic News Service in Rome during an
interview at the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, where
he has served as prefect since 2011.
The book looks particularly at how minorities and the country as a
whole suffered invasions, despots and Western hegemony, and yet
tenaciously held on to its cultures and religious identities.
“In order to defend their identity within this great sea of Islam,
Christians had to withdraw into themselves, keeping their own language,
which dates back to the time of Jesus, that is, Aramaic,” he said.
While, over the centuries, the everyday spoken language developed into
different dialects, the liturgy still maintained the original form of
ancient Aramaic, he added.
Even though Christians held on to their traditions and culture, they
were “truly open” and didn’t ignore the world around them, learning and
speaking Arabic, for example, he said.
This kind of everyday contact between Christians and their Muslim
neighbors also led to a sharing of ideas, influence and mutual respect
on the local level, Cardinal Filoni said.
For example, he recalled when he lived in Baghdad, he visited a church dedicated to Mary in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.
“I was astounded by the fact that the walls of this church were
dirty” with what looked like handprints smudged everywhere, he said.
When he asked church members, “‘Why don’t you clean this?’ They said
‘No! Because these are the signs of the Muslim women who come to pray to
Mary, mother of Jesus, and as a sign of their prayer, they leave an
imprint of their hand.'”
Since Mary is revered by Muslims, he said many expectant mothers visit this church to pray to her for protection.
“This influence, for example of Mary, in people’s daily lives” and
similar devotions to prayer, fasting and charity, fostered closer
relationships, mutual respect and understanding between Christians and
Muslims, he said.
“A modern Iraq, full of history, of possibility and responsibility —
not least because of its huge oil resources, which continue to be a
source of discord, jealousy, envy, and oppression — should be defended,
helped, and supported more than ever,” the cardinal concludes in his
While the primary responsibility for allowing Muslim, Christian and
other minorities to return to their country and help build its future
belongs to Iraq’s three largest communities — Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds
— the rest of the world is also “in some way responsible for this
crisis,” he told CNS.
“We all have to assume responsibility to rebuild, which is very difficult, because once people emigrate, they very rarely go back,” he said. “But if we can still preserve the
coexistence of these even small communities (that remain), this will
benefit peace, which is essential so that Christians don’t keep leaving
behind this ancient land so rich in culture, tradition and history.”