Catholic bishops in the UK have spoken out over the “systematic and deliberately relentless” persecution of Christians in Iraq during an emotional Mass at Westminster Cathedral filled with families mourning lost loved ones.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, presided at Monday’s Votive Mass for Peace in Iraq which attracted crowds of Iraqi Christians in the UK as well as leading Catholics and charities.
Addressing his comments to the Iraqi Christians in the cathedral, Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth said in his homily: “We [have] become aware of the ways in which the Christian community – your Christian community – is suffering and being continually harassed and threatened.”
Bishop Hollis, chairman of the English and Welsh bishops’ international affairs department, described his recent visit to Iraq, adding: “The continuing violence in the country has seriously wounded your community in a particular way and the murder of lay people and clergy by extremists of all sorts has been both systematic and deliberately relentless.”
At the end of the Mass, which included music and prayers in Arabic, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor read out a message from Auxiliary Bishop Andreas Abouna of Baghdad thanking bishops and people in Britain for supporting Iraqi Christians.
In his message, Bishop Abouna went on to highlight the work of Catholic charities helping Iraqi Christians: “I would like to thank all the Catholic charities for their work. May God bless them and all their efforts for their brothers and sisters.”
During the Bidding Prayers, the names of Iraqi clergy killed in the last two years were read out – Fathers Poulous Iskandar, Ragheed Ganni, Yousif Adel Abody and Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul.
After the Mass, Neville Kyrke-Smith, National Director of Aid to the Church in Need (UK), said: “At Aid to the Church in Need, we have known many of the priests and bishops who have suffered – some of whom have since died. ACN is called to stand by those who are enduring the way of the cross – we must help them to carry that cross.”
At the end of the service, Iraqi Christians praised Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor for holding the service.
Rania Yousif, whose cousin Saif Laith Yousuf was killed in Baghdad in May 2007, said: “It was a very moving service. I found it very encouraging – I no longer feel that our situation is being ignored.”
A woman named Susan, whose cousin was killed in a Baghdad jewellery store less than a week ago, added: “For so long, nobody has taken any notice of what we Christians have been suffering. We have no means of protection.”
Christians in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra have been subject to some of the worst persecution with house-to-house searches conducted by militia who have forced them to choose between eviction and a huge fine.
Churches have been bombed and forcibly closed, Christian symbols, including crosses, have been pulled down from buildings and anti-Christian propaganda has been distributed.
Combined with the worsening poverty, the persecution has forced Iraqi Christians to flee en masse with reports that the number emigrating is proportionately far higher than other religious groups.
The Christian population in Iraq, which at the turn of the Millennium was about one million, may now be as low as 400,000.
About 200,000 Christians are now refugees in Syria and Jordan combined and a further 30,000 displaced from their homeless are reported to be seeking sanctuary in the Nineveh Plains, in the north-west of Iraq. Thousands more are in Turkey.
Pope Benedict XVI has highlighted his concern about the crisis, calling on Catholic charities to step up their work to help the persecuted faithful: “Churches in the Middle East are threatened in their very existence… May God grant Aid to the Church in Need strength to help wherever the need is greatest.”