Archbishop says war leaders Blair and Bush did not understand Iraq

By staff writers
April 8, 2010

Dr Rowan Williams, spiritual head of the world-wide Anglican Communion, which claims 77 million members, has suggested that a partial 'Western' experience of Christianity meant that the Prime Minister, Tony Blair and President George Bush had little apparent understanding of Iraq and its indigenous religious traditions when they launched the 2003 war.

His comments came in the context of a BBC Radio 4 documentary about the perilous situation of Christians and other minorities in post-war Iraq, hosted by veteran journalist Ed Stourton on Tuesday 6 April 2010.

Stourton asked the Archbishop about the two politicians who took the West to war in Iraq and oversaw an occupation which has led to violent division and confrontation in the midst of subsequent attempts to transition to a fragile democracy.

Tony Blair and George Bush were "the most enthusiastically Christian leaders we have had for many years," he pointed out - and critics say that they ignored widespread Christian opposition to their war and abused Christian language to justify it.

"The Christianity both of them were shaped by is, on the whole, a very, very Western thing," Dr Williams said. "I don't sense that either of them had very much sense of the indigenous Christian life and history that there is in the region."

Iraq's Christians blame Western ignorance for a good number of their problems today. Louis Sako, the Chaldean Archbishop of the Northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, was highly critical of Western evangelical missionaries who came "piling into Iraq" in the immediate aftermath of the American invasion.

They came looking for converts and trampled over the sensitivities of Christian communities who have been present in Iraq for many hundreds of years - as well as upsetting and provoking Muslims at a particularly volatile time.

Dr Williams expressed exasperation at the lack of knowledge of historic Christianity in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East on the part of Western politicians, commentators and policy makers.

In Baghdad alone, Archbishop Sako, leader of Iraq's largest Christian denomination, told Stourton, thirty new churches opened up shop, "with money, with books they were handing out to people on the street. I think this is provoking people. A Muslim cannot change his religion. It is not allowed. And they think they are here as missionaries to gain Muslims for Christianity."

The Chaldeans are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and Archbishop Sako has been instrumental in persuading Pope Benedict XVI to convene a special synod in October 2010 on the plight of Christians in the Middle East.

In a pamphlet produced to bring the issue to the world's attention Archbishop Sako writes: "Iraq is our homeland – we have been here long before the arrival of Islam. We are an indigenous people, not some colonial entity from somewhere else."

However, since the war and invasion, many Iraqi Muslims have come to see Christians wrongly as a colonial entity - associating Christianity with the West, and therefore with the occupation, rather than with the East where the faith was born.

The factors behind the eruption of violence against Christians in Iraq are complex, as the programme and its participants, including Dr Williams, recognised. It also includes the incursion of modern, aggressively politicised and religiously narrow forms of Islamism.

But Western Christians, especially political leaders waving a 'Christian flag' (President Bush made a disastrous reference to a 'crusade', and the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said he was accountable to God in his decision to go to war) have also been part of the problem, it was suggested.

Dr Williams acknowledged that with Christians under pressure and attack in Iraq, living on the edge and fleeing the country in large numbers, there was a chance that the faith might die out in one of the historic lands of its birth.

This would be very sad and "a castrophe", said the Anglican leader, urging Christians and others to renew their understanding and commitment to indigenous Christians in Iraq and the Middle East generally.

'Iraq's Forgotten Conflict' was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 6 April at 8pm. It is available online to 'listen again' until 12 April 2010:


Ekklesia has teamed up with Premier Christian Radio to promote a series of Easter talks highlighting the life, witness and struggles of Christians in the Middle East. They are being delivered throughout this week by Dr Harry Hagopian, an ecumenical, legal and political consultant who was formerly an executive secretary of the Middle east Council of Churches (MECC). These are being collated here: The talk on Iraq can be found here:

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