Tuesday, January 18, 2005: On Monday, January 17, 2004, it was reported that Archbishop Basilios Georges Casmoussa (or, Basile Georges Casmoussa), head the Syrian Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul, had been kidnapped in Iraq. Yahoo News reported:
In Mosul, Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of the Syrian Catholic Church, was seized by gunmen and the Vatican condemned the abduction as a "terrorist act." The 66-year-old churchman was grabbed while walking in front of his church, a priest said on condition of anonymity. Christians make up just 3 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. The major Christian groups include Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians with small numbers of Roman Catholics.
Twenty-four hours later the Archbishop was released. Catholic New Service reported:
Syrian-rite Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul was released Jan. 18 and was resting safely at his residence. Church officials said it was unclear whether the abduction was directed against the Christian community or was part of the general criminality in Iraq.
Archbishop Casmoussa, 66, told Vatican Radio after his release that his captors had treated him well and freed him soon after they discovered he was a Catholic bishop. "I'm very happy to be back in the archbishop's residence, where many friends and faithful gathered to meet me," Archbishop Casmoussa said.
"In general I can say I was not mistreated. The kidnappers were very friendly toward me. As soon as they learned that I was a bishop, their behavior changed," he said.
In November of 2004, the Archbishop was interviewed by Catholic World Report about the state of Christianity and, in particular, the Catholic Church in post-Saddam Iraq. Here is that story and interview.
An Iraqi bishop reports on the post-war struggles of the Christian minority.
November 2004 (Catholic World Report)
The city of Mosul, located about 250 miles north of Baghdad, is home to one of the larger and livelier Christian communities in Iraq. There are roughly 50,000 Catholics in the city and its environs, divided between two Eastern-rite archdioceses: Chaldean and Syrian.
Since December 1999, Archbishop Basilios Georges Casmoussa has headed the Syrian Catholic Archdiocese of Mosul. Ordained to the priesthood in 1962, he served for three decades as the editor of a magazine, Christian Source, and became well known among the members of the International Union of the Catholic Press - a group that is familiarly known by its French acronym, UCIP.
In October the archbishop traveled to Bangkok to meet with his old journalistic colleagues, and speak at a UCIP convention on the challenges of Christian media in a society marked by cultural and religious pluralism. While he was in Thailand, Archbishop Casmoussa spoke with CWR correspondent Anto Akkara about the problems that have faced the Christians in Iraq following the US-led ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime.
During the hour-long interview, the archbishop also discussed the behind-the-scenes negotiations that took place when Pope John Paul II indicated a desire to visit Iraq, and make a pilgrimage to the home of the patriarch Abraham, in 2000. The archbishop explained why plans for the papal trip were scuttled.
There were about 700,000 Christians in Iraq before the 2003 war, accounting for roughly 4 percent of the country's population. That number has dropped noticeably this year, with the departure of many Christian families seeking to escape the near-anarchy that followed the war, and a mounting campaign of intimidation by Islamic fundamentalists. About 70 percent of Iraq's Christians are Catholics, most of them affiliated with the Eastern Catholic churches.
Do you find any sudden difference in the lives of Christians since the end of the Saddam Hussein regime?
Archbishop Basilios Georges Casmoussa: You know, I would not like to put it that way. It is not a question of before and after Saddam. Christians have been in Iraq - and they are here now - since the 1st century, even 650 years before Islam came to Iraq. We have lived together in this land in peace up until now.
We still face no oppression or official persecution. We are a minority and the [Muslim] majority controls the power and the laws. Yet we have not faced much of a problem. But now some fundamentalist groups have risen up.
The political situation is very different with the coming of the Americans. We and all the people hope that there will be major changes soon. But the situation is going from bad to worse. We are now faced with new problems - bombings, explosions, kidnappings - and the political situation is not clear. These problems are the same for Christians and Muslim people.
Do you feel that Christians are suffering more?
Casmoussa: As a minority, in a sense we are suffering a bit more - but not as much as reported in the outside media. Churches and mosques have been bombed. Christian and Muslim homes and schools have been damaged.
Do you feel, then, that the Western media have been giving too much coverage to the harassment of Christians?
Casmoussa: For the first time in the history of Iraq, the church was bombed, only recently. On the morning of the feast of Ascension, my cathedral was also attacked, along with five churches in Baghdad. We do not know who did that and why. Our relations with everyone are good.
The attack [by a car bomb] happened at the end of the morning Mass I led. They chose the time carefully. Next Sunday, we asked the youth to stop cars from entering the church compound. But everything became normal. We still carry on our lives normally, conducting church services regularly and going to work as usual.
You see, the situation is altogether different without the proper government and authority in control: without regular army and proper security. In such situations, you have always some people who want to disturb peace and fish in troubled waters. This is the problem.
Let me put the question this way: Christianity has been in Iraq for 2,000 years. Is Iraqi Christianity now passing through the gravest crisis ever?
Casmoussa: Yes, at this point, we are facing the biggest crisis.
Along with the increasing number of attacks, do you feel Christians are facing a sort of social boycott, or ostracism?
Casmoussa: Even our Muslim neighbors say, "Christians are quiet and peaceful people. Why did they [the bombers] do this?" We do not know who did it. There might be other forces behind the fundamentalists, or it might be due to government policies. We do not know.
We continue our normal life and our relations with Muslims. But some people do feel worried and have moved to Syria and other countries, after some threats by Islamic groups that "you are in danger if you live here." Yet most of our people do not feel that the situation is bad enough for us to flee the country. Our wish is to stay here. This is the land of our forefathers and we are part of this country.
We do not see the present situation in religious terms, as struggles between Christians and Muslims. We are close to our fellow Muslim citizens. We have to pray, and continue to live with them. They are also facing the same situation.
We are also speaking to the Muslim leaders, urging them to make their people conscious of the problems - during Friday prayers and on other occasions - by pointing out that we are all one people with a common heritage and history. This is not just our official position; this is what we are trying to do every day.
Christians are not imported here. We are the children of this land; we tell our Muslim friends that we have been here even before Islam.
How many Christians have been killed, and how many Church-run institutions damaged?
Casmoussa: We do not have many institutions here.
Certainly several Christians have died. Maybe more than 50 Christians have been killed in bombings - by fundamentalists and by Americans. I do not have the exact figures.
Has the violence brought about a change in the life of the Christians?
Casmoussa: When you are in a situation like this, what can you do? You suffer, and try to go out and support the peace process. It is not a solution to leave the country suddenly, before the problems are sorted out. As I told you, it is our country, our home, we cannot leave it. We will suffer what comes in our way. The people find no other way.
Despite all the problems, we lead normal lives, like our fellow Muslims. Our only strategy is to wait patiently and not to disturb the relations with the Muslim people - to speak out and promote brotherhood and help each other in the time of trouble.
Under the Saddam Hussein regime, some Catholics held high government office - such as Tariq Aziz, who was the deputy prime minister. Did Catholics wield real influence in the regime?
Casmoussa: Aziz was a Catholic but he was not in the government as a Catholic. He was good to us, but not especially considerate to Catholics just because he was a Catholic. He was a member of the regime due to his capabilities and his contacts and not because he was a Catholic. It is true that his wife and daughters were closely associated with the Church.
In many countries, religious minorities face discrimination at the hands of the majority - both as a matter of law and as a matter of common social practice. Has it been the same in Iraq?
Casmoussa: There were no official restrictions [under Saddam Hussein] for the Christians in the army and in the government. They faced no discrimination.
In democratic terms, every citizen must have the right to have his place in government and economic activity. There was no discrimination or persecution of the Christian minorities. They were free to come up through the ranks. That is why Aziz reached a high position.
Are you afraid of the new language that is being heard in Iraq, in which Islamic fundamentalists speak of Christians as being "unwanted" in the country?
Casmoussa: Yes, we are afraid of the language the fundamentalists use, because every fundamentalist regime is bad for us. I don't think they will win [in forthcoming elections]. But they may become a part of the new government and try to exercise control. That would make a difficult situation for us.
In the past, the presence of a Christian in government did not mean he was out to protect or safeguard the Christian interests. It was the same way with Muslims in government. But that is our history. ...
W e hope that when a proper government is in place, everyone will have an opportunity to state his demands and concerns. The best we can wish from the fundamentalists is that they would not treat us as second-class citizens in our country. We hope that they will not be in the government, directly or indirectly. Beyond that, we hope that they not impose upon Iraq some things which are not in our traditions.
For us, every Muslim is a free human being and we accept him as he is. We also want them to accept us as we are. We should be protected by the law, and we expect our rights as citizens. We pay all the taxes, do our duties as citizens then, we should have all the same rights as citizens as our Muslim neighbors.
What we worry about most is our security: our right to live peacefully in this country which is our home.
Are there many significant differences between Iraqi Christians and Muslims in their traditions, aside from their religious beliefs and practices?
Casmoussa: Christians do have some social customs and traditions different from the Muslims, although we have most things in common. In other words, we do not share everything in common, nor is everything different. Socially, we have different expressions, and ways of greeting people.
The education system is also a difference between Christians and Muslims, with their special religious education apart from basic education.
How many educational institutions does the Church have?
Casmoussa: Our schools were nationalized in 1970 when the Baath party took over. There were private schools, and the first university in Iraq was established by American Jesuits and known as the University of Wisdom. But it was taken over by the government.
We also have some schools which are official government schools, but where we can teach catechism on holidays. Wherever the population is more than 20 percent Christian, the official schools allow the teaching of the catechism. These schools are not Catholic schools, but community schools in Christian villages. In my diocese, there are about 10 big villages with such schools where we can teach catechism. Now we are demanding that all students should get the opportunity to study their religion.
We have our ways to teach catechism in the Christian villages. We teach catechism on Fridays [the Islamic Sabbath day, and a day of rest in Iraq] and other days, in the churches, using the trained lay teachers who do the work voluntarily.
We do have the regular Sunday Mass and if any one has to leave an official job [to attend Mass] we generally have no problem. In the Christian villages, both Sundays and Fridays are important for church services and programs.
Are there any conversions taking place?
Casmoussa: No, there is not much conversion taking place in Iraq. Christians remain Christians and Muslims remain Muslims.
Some Muslims do approach us asking to be converted after listening to Bible lectures and so forth. But if they convert, it would be dangerous. It would not be safe for them to live in the country. The official law is against conversions.
Moreover the social pressure is great on a Muslim who converts to another religion, since he is considered an apostate.
Did you face censorship under the Saddam Hussein regime?
Casmoussa: We had to work with the ministry of information, which was abolished by the Americans. We had to get permission from the local governor to publish anything. We would prepare the text and present it to them for approval.
Things have changed now. I have in my diocese a new biannual magazine for which permission is given easily now. With Saddam, it was not easy. Now we have freedom to speak about everything. But also, everyone is free to kill anyone. That is our problem now.
During the Jubilee Year 2000, Pope John Paul II had plans to visit Iraq. Those plans were called off at the last minute. Could you explain what happened?
Casmoussa: The Holy Father's program was to visit Ur, the land of Abraham, and surely Baghdad as well.
It was joyful news for all the Christians in Iraq that the Pope would be visiting our country. We began preparations in earnest for that, with the participation of other Christian churches.
But, it was cancelled because the government had some plans to exploit the visit for political purposes and to impose conditions: asking the Pope publicly to state his concerns about the Palestine problem in a speech. The Saddam Hussein regime wanted that, but the Vatican refused.
Although the government explained that the visit had been cancelled because they could not ensure the security of the Pope during his visit, the people obviously understood the real reason. [SIDEBAR]
NEW BOMBINGS: THE ARCHBISHOP REACTS
After the main portion of this interview was concluded, CWR caught up with Archbishop Casmoussa once again to ask for his reaction after a new rash of bombings struck five Christian churches in Baghdad on October 16. His response:
Casmoussa: This is really shocking and sad news. Their strategy is to create fear among the Christians and push them out of Iraq. This is also a clear message to the Americans that they will punish the Christians for the American presence in Iraq.
Several Christian families have already fled to Syria and other countries. They hope that many, many more Christians will go. That is what they are hoping for.
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