Words of encouragement from local, regional and international church leaders, who want Christian institutions to remain in Iraq, have not been able to stem a tide of Iraqi refugees from leaving their country in the face of violence - writes Chris Herlinger.
The family of 60-year-old Basil Mati Koriya Kaktoma and his wife, Ekram Ishak Buni Safar, aged 55, have lived in Syria since July 2006. Refugees such as these are adamant they will never return to their homeland given their experience of threats, physical abuse and, in the case of Kaktoma, a week-long abduction by Muslim gunmen Kaktoma believes targeted him because he is Christian.
"I'd rather go to hell than go back to Iraq," Kaktoma said in a recent interview in the family's cramped apartment in Damascus. "What I saw was so horrible that I can't even look at a map of my own country."
Syrian-based leaders of the Chaldean Catholic Church, to which Kaktoma belongs, acknowledge the painful and paradoxical situation Christian institutions face because of the sectarian nature of violence in Iraq.
While they want the Church to remain in Iraq, which is a country with one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the leaders believe the long-term outlook for a church presence in Iraq is precarious.
In this situation, the Church must also offer succour to the thousands of displaced Christians who now reside in Syria and Lebanon but hope to join family members in countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia.
"The Christians lost a lot in this situation," Antoine Audo, the Chaldean Catholic bishop of Aleppo, Syria, said about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the political and social chaos that followed. "It's very important to have the continuity of [Christian] history in the region. Our presence is important. We have a unique experience of living with Islam."
That unique nature of a Christian presence in Iraq was one reason World Council of Churches General Secretary Samuel Kobia said in October that he hoped Christians in Iraq could, and would, remain in their country. Kobia wrote to them in a 14 October letter, "Your presence in the land is an assurance that Christianity continues to endure; you are a sign of hope to people of faith everywhere."
Yet, Christian leaders acknowledge the situation for Christians in Iraq is hard and dispiriting. More than 200 Iraqi Christians have been killed since 2003, and dozens of churches, including the Baghdad church Kaktoma, Safar and their four children once attended, have been bombed. Moreover, anywhere from one-third to a half of the 800 000 Christians who lived in Iraq at the beginning of the U.S. invasion are believed to have fled the country.
Church leaders often express hope that displaced Christian Iraqis can at least remain in the Middle East so that Iraqi Christian life can continue in the region that gave birth to Christian tradition. Still, they also acknowledge the need to respect the decision of Iraqi families who wish to join relatives elsewhere in the world. "They go where they can go," Bishop Audo said. "I am doing everything to give a future for our church," he said. "What will happen, I don't know."
For Kaktoma, a retired oil company employee, any future must be as far away as possible from the site of his eight-day May 2006 abduction. The trauma included an assault, which broke his right leg and permanently discoloured it. Kaktoma's release was made possible, when relatives in the United States and Canada paid a ransom.
Speaking for her entire family about their past and future, Safar said: "Iraq is finished."
Chris Herlinger, a New York-based correspondent for ENI, was among the recipients of Catholic Relief Services' 2008 Eileen Egan Award. The award from the US-based humanitarian agency included a recent trip to the Middle East.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]