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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
"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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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