ASIA/IRAQ - A year after the fall of Saddam: different religious communities amidst traditional leaders and new radical groups

Saturday, 24 April 2004

Baghdad (Fides Service) - It is a composite scenario which is registered in Iraq a gear after the fall of Saddam Hussein: emerging new political groups, reawakening of traditional religious movements and birth of new formation, the return to the homeland of exiled religious leaders, the influence of neighbouring countries produce a picture in which often political and religious instances cross paths and within which each different group works to gain its place in the Iraq of the future.
One of the most evident dynamics was relative to Shiite Muslims: with masse demonstrations and capillary grass roots organisations Iraq’s Shiite Muslims are reaffirming their identity after years of brutal repression in the years of the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. As the largest religious community (about 63% of the population) the Shiites showed a desire to have a say in the planning of the new Iraq. Not without knots difficult to unravel.
One of the problems regards the model of a theocratic nation championed by the Shiite community while some leaders call for an immediate withdrawal of coalition troops from Iraqi soil. Within the Shiite community in the past year there have emerged young radical leaders which are challenging the traditional clergy, more moderate, composed of Muslim leaders many of whom have returned from exile. Another challenge to consider is how determinant the influence of neighbour Iran totally Shiite and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
On the other hand the Sunni community in Iraq, which gathers 34% of the Muslim population, has been penalised in the post-Saddam era, given that at the time of the Baath Party it was identified with the group holding political power. After reorganising itself with difficulty, at the end of military hostilities a year ago, it has had to face a great rising of Shiite Islam reawakened after suffering harsh repression in the years of the dictatorship of Saddam. In this process of reorganisation it suffered from infiltration of Wahabiti individuals and groups which brought with them the anti-west ideology of Al Qaeda.
According to some analysts precisely on the basis an ideology anti-west and contrary to the presence of foreign troops on Iraqi soil, in Iraq we see a progressive healing of relations between the Shiite and Sunni communities historically divided. Most reliable hypothesis speak instead of a “temporary alliance” of the two branches of followers of the Prophet, or better, between some groups of Shiite and Sunni Muslims , to reach common objectives, particularly direct political sovereignty in the country.
Divided fundamentally in two factions, the Kurds, mostly Sunni Muslims, want to take part in the government of the country despite the existing rivalry between the two internal groups. The groups in which they are divided are the Kurdistan Democratic Party(KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, Kurdistan Patriotic Union (KPU), led by Jalal Talabani. Both leaders are present in the Iraqi governing Council and they have their own military force of Peshmerga militants.
In this scenario the Christian community in its diverse articulations, has reaffirmed that it is part of the Iraqi people, and it intends to build relations of brotherhood with the other religious communities, and contribute towards building a new Iraq. Worth noting is also the great commitment of Christians in works of solidarity towards the poorest sectors of the population through Caritas Iraq, which often reaches non Christians.

Shiite Muslims

One of the leading Shiite groups is the Daawa movement, started in 1950 and the oldest Islamic movement in Iraq. After suffering a series of brutal killings of its leaders in the time of Saddam, it was dissolved and suppressed and many Shiites went underground. Guided by Sheikh Mohaammed Nasseri, returned from exile in Iran after the war, the Daawa movement has two members in the Iraqi Governing Council. Nasseri has always stated that “the period of occupation by the coalition forces must not be longer than six months”.

Another Shiite movement which has been active in the last year is the Iraqi Supreme Revolution Council, whose leader Muhammad Baqr al-Hakim, was killed in a bomb explosion in Najaf in August 2003. Acclaimed by thousands of believers, Hakim returned from exile where he was sent by Saddam. Before he was killed he had offered to support the Iraqi Governing Council legitimating it in the eyes of the Shiite community. His place in the leadership was taken by his brother Abdel Aziz, who has close ties with Iran, and obtained a seat in the Iraqi Governing Council for his movement. The Iraqi Supreme Revolution Council, can count on an armed wing known as the Badr Brigades comprising 10,000 men.

One of the radical Shiite groups is led by Moqtada al Sadr, aged 32, son of the Shiite leader murdered by the Baath Party in the years of the dictatorship. Sadr, who opposes traditional Shiite leadership, has made his headquarters in Najaf and he is openly against what he calls “American occupation”. Sadr, today wanted by the coalition authorities, in his discourses has always invoked Islamic law and appealed to Iraqi national pride, putting himself against the Grand Grande Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the main Shiite authority present in Iraq. Sadr has also recruited a militia of about 10,000 men and his positions have had ample resonance and popularity in the Shiite district of Baghdad, renamed “Sadr City”. Recently he threatened to use suicide bombers against the coalition forces if they enter the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala. Today, according to observers, he is isolated from the rest of the Shiite community.

The most important Shiite spiritual leader present in Iraq is, among the other leaders, Ali Al Sistani, 78, who has shown himself to be one of the more tolerant towards the coalition forces, remembering the persecution his community suffered under the old regime. Al Sistani spent many years under arrest, for refusing to go into exile. During the war he was in favour of the coalition and today he is challenged by many young radical leaders looking for space in their Shiite community. While not sparing reserve with regard the project for an Iraqi Constitution recently elaborated, he has not openly criticised the work of the Governing Council on which some of his supporters are sitting. Sistani respects separation of religions and state and rejects the use of force while calling for the date set for passing of power to Iraqis to be respected. Also because within the Shiite community there is growing malcontent with regard to coalition policies. According to many observers his is a position of “waiting”: he does not want to enter into conflict with the US administration which after all liberated the country from Saddam, but he waits for the passing of power in order to make the numerical consistence of the Shiite community bear weight in the new Iraqi scenario , through a legitimately elected government.

Sunni Muslims

Among the Sunni Muslims is a group linked with Mohsen Abdel Hamid, an Islamic theologian and a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. Hamid is the leader of the Iraq Islamic Party, which is part of the Muslim Brothers group. His moderate position clashes with that of Ahmad el Kebeisey, professor of Islamic Studies at Baghdad University, one of the leaders of Friday prayers at Abi Hanifa mosque in the Sunni district of Baghdad. More than once the Imam has incited to anti-American hatred and instigated protests against the coalition forces.

Repeated fighting and kidnapping has brought new actors onto the Iraqi scene. Among them the Association of Sunni Clergy, noted for helping to achieve the fragile treaty between Sunni rebels in Falluja and US troops, and also the release of seven Chinese taken hostage for a few days.
Sheikh Harith al Dhari, one of the leaders of the Association explained that “the organisation is religious but is also interested in politics and social questions and acts in the interest of the country”. The Association has been on the front page several times for the void created within the Sunni community since the end of the war. Its activity mirrors also nationalist behaviour and extends to include some important Ulema, like those at the Haanifa and Abd al Kadr mosques in Baghdad, becoming in this way an influential institution. Although not represented in the Governing Council, the organisation has legitimated it declaring its closeness to the position of the Iraq Islamic Party. It also has relations with the Kurd community and claims to want to build good relations with the Shiite community.


Divided basically in two factions the Kurds, mostly Sunni Muslims expect to take part in the government of the country, despite rivalry which exists within their two groups. The formation in which they are divided are the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, and the Kurdistan Patriotic Union (KPU), led by Jalal Talabani. Both leaders are present in the Iraqi Governing Council and they have their own army formed mainly of Peshmerga militants.
The Kurds living mostly in north east Iraq, about 4 million people, converted to Sunni Islam when Kurdistan was occupied by part of the Islamic army in the first half of the 7th century. Before the arrival of Islam the most widespread religions was Zoroastrianism, but the Kurds were familiar with the other two monotheistic religions and had among them Jewish communities (since the 6th century) and Christian communities (since the 2nd century). Today among the Kurds there are very few Jews but the Christian community is still present, and so is Yazidanism.
The conversion of the Kurds to Islam was due not so much to attraction for Arab spiritual teaching as their desire to escape injustice in a feudal society and aspiration to a society based on equality, fraternity and solidarity. In the 12th century the Kurds were included in the Ottoman Empire. The end of the Empire in 1918, was the origin of the Kurdish question. The borders of the Empire in fact were first of all replaced with a British mandate and then state borders set and impenetrable (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran,) which prevented the function of the Kurdish ethnic group as a whole. And so, while under the Empire the Kurds enjoyed privileges because they were “the guardians of the frontiers”, later they were seen as an obstacle to the homogenisation of national territories.
Today Islam is the substance of Kurd civilisation: it organises all social, cultural and political life, sets the scale of moral and social values, education and formation in families. The men of religion have an important place in Kurd society. Very often the Mullah is the person with the most instruction in the village. Religious leaders played an important role also in the modern Kurdish national liberation movement, as was the case of Mullah Mustafà Barzani (1931-1978). This phenomenon consolidated the foundations of the national movement outlining the ideological and political dimensions of the Kurd’s struggle for a national state, for recognition of the Kurdish ethnic group by Muslim countries such as Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The death of Barzani, marked the end of the phase of religious and civil power and the beginning of a phase of secular leadership.
For their aspirations for self rule (or at times secession) the Kurds were persecuted by the regime of Saddam Hussein. Since the institution of the no fly zone, established by the United Nations in 1991, Iraqi Kurdistan has been under international protection and the Kurds reached a degree of self rule.

Also Assyrian Christians in Iraq hope to live their religious and cultural identity after the fall of Saddam. One of their representatives, Younadem Kana, is the only Christian member of the Governing Council. They tend to be followers of the Assyrian Church of the East and they are very close to the Chaldean Catholic Church, since they too were born from the preaching of Saint Thomas in the 1st century AD. Fiercely persecuted by the Baath regime they have now a certain freedom which is expressed in customs, culture and religious activity.
The Assyrian Oriental Church, an autonomous Church not in communion with Rome, or any of the Orthodox Churches, is strongly connected with the Chaldean Catholic Church and shares its origins. The evangelisation carried out by the two disciples of the Apostle, Mar Addai and Mar Mari, created a prosperous Church which spread between the 1st and 4th century and founded communities and monasteries from Syria to Iraq and Iran. This Church, called Assyrian Oriental Church, attained its autonomy through the Councils of Seleutia in 410 and Markbata in 424, and was granted permission to elect its own Patriarch, the "Catholicos".
In the mid 15th century the Assyrian Church lived a moment of difficulty and decline. At the beginning of 1553 - when Pope Julius III nominated Simon VIII "Patriarch of the Chaldeans"- a schism opened between the Assyrian and the Chaldean Church, lasting to this day.
Since this historical division relations between the Chaldean Church and the Assyrian Church have improved, a new era of dialogue and good relations brought to the signing of a common Christological declaration by the Pope and Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV in Rome in November 1994. In August 1997 the Chaldean and the Assyrian Holy Synods instituted the Commission for dialogue to discuss pastoral co-operation at all levels.
One especially delicate stage of the history of the Assyrians was the persecution endured in 1933, just after Iraqi independence (1932): considered hostile to the authority, they were slaughtered by the Iraqi army. The event is remembered on August 7th every year, when the Assyrians celebrate the day of "Assyrian Martyrdom". Presently a community of about 70,000 Assyrians lives in North Iraq, preserving its cultural, linguistic and religious identity. In the seventies the government of Baghdad chose to grant equal cultural and civil rights to Assyrians and Turkmen, since then the Assyrians attained the possibility to teach Syrian (or Aramaic) language in Assyrian elementary schools.

“All Iraqi Christians are praying and working to preserve the co-existence of believers of different faiths which has lasted for 1,600 years”, Archbishop Athanase Matti Shaba Mattoka, Archbishop of the Syrian Catholic community in Baghdad, told Fides with regard to the situation of Iraqi Christians in the new Iraqi scenario. “We are convinced that dialogue is means for putting en end to violence ”, he added.
In the post-Saddam era the Christian community has sought its social and political space upholding a secular and pluralist nation, with respect for religions minorities. The Christians welcomed the approval of Iraq’s new constitution in March 2004, and they said this was “a positive step for the unity of the nation and for the birth of a new Iraq, a civilised Iraq which respects all minority groups”, a local Catholic priest Father Nizar Semaan told Fides. “What prevailed was the vision of a secular Iraq with religious values because secularism is not contrary to religion”, Father Nizar explained. “This constitution can be a solid basis for a future of democracy for Iraq where there is respect for people of all faiths and ethnic groups ”, he added noting that for Christians “the most important fact is that the text of the Constitution is not based on Islamic Law”.
The priest commented: “I think this constitution will be an example for the entire Middle East. Iraqis can be proud of this constitution which lays foundations for civil harmony among the people of different ethnic groups and religions. Today in the new Iraq there are no first or second class citizens, all have equal rights and duties. As Christians we hope we will have more freedom to life our faith. We want to play an active part in building the new Iraq”.
The constitutional paper would appear to have accepted the requests of the Christian community, voiced clearly last Autumn by the Chaldean Catholic Bishops (Chaldean Catholics are the largest Catholic community). In a letter to the governing Council Consiglio they asked for the guarantee of all rights for Iraqi Christians at the religious, social, civil and political level. The Chaldean population - the Bishops recalled- is the third largest ethnic group in Iraq, after Arabs and Kurds: their presence in the professional, social and administration fields has always been important in Iraq. This is why the Bishops called for recognition of the importance of the Chaldean community in the building of the new Iraq. “We express our solidarity- they wrote - to all Iraqi citizens, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and all the ethnic and religious groups, living in peaceful fraternity especially with other Christians, Syrians, Armenians and Latins to build a new free, democratic and prosperous Iraq”.
Despite these positive acquisitions, recent tension caused fear among the Christian community, threatened by extremist groups more than once, in different Iraqi cities, especially in Mosul. Political struggle between Shiites and Sunni Muslims - Fides sources note - does not offer reassuring prospects to Christians. Some Christians families are leaving Baghdad for the north in the area of Mosul, where they feel safer .
Christians insist that they consider themselves fully Iraqis: in fact the Christian presence in this part of the world which goes from Iraq to India, is very ancient and it dates to the teaching of St Thomas the Apostle who left Jerusalem in about the year 40AD, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, to evangelise in 42-49 AD the other peoples of the Middle East .
Christians today are descendants of those who did not embrace Islam in the 7th century when the Arabs conquered the region. 70% of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church. In all Christians, Catholics and Orthodox, are about 800,000, or 3 % of the population. In recent years some Protestants have settled in Iraq.
Catholic communities presenti in Iraq follow four different rites:

Chaldean Catholics
They are the vast majority of the local Christians. The Patriarchate has its see in Baghdad. After the death of the Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans His Beatitude Raphael I Bidawid, His Beatitude Emmanuel-Karim Delly,76, is the new Patriarch and on his appointment, 3 December 2003, he told Fides: “We are living a difficult situation and we ask for peace and tranquillity. Conditions of security must be re-established to guarantee a return to normal life ” “The violence in Iraq - Mons. Delly continues - must be condemned in no half measures”.
Among a vast Islamic majority, the Chaldean Church lives and professes its faith with great vitality, dedicating itself to catechesis and education: there is a Patriarchal Seminary in Baghdad and the recently founded College of Babylon, a Patriarchal College affiliated to the Pontifical Urban University, led by the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, where seminarians and laypersons operating there study theology and philosophy. Since Friday is the weekly holiday in the country (according to the Islamic calendar), parishes hold their catechesis on Fridays for children, young people and adults. A few years ago another Centre opened where laypersons can study theology and philosophy to become catechists and collaborators of the parish priests. Sunday is a working day in Iraq, so the Mass is celebrated in the morning early or in the evenings, at the end of the working day.
Parishes play an important role in the Chaldean Christian communities, they are the only places where people can practise and live their faith. Thus pastoral work becomes of crucial importance and today it bears significant fruits despite economic difficulties. The parishes were built according to what the Church could afford, but today, with the communities growing, necessities increase too.
The Chaldean community, devoutly charitable, assists a number of poor families, both Christian and Muslim, giving them food, clothes and other kinds of help every month. The official language used in the Chaldean Liturgy is Aramaic, as it is the liturgical, theological and classical language of Christianity of Semitic tradition. But since Arabic is currently widely spoken by believers and young people, and since Aramaic terminology and synonyms are incomplete, the Holy Mass is celebrated in two languages. Catechism is done in Arabic, except for the mountain villages in the north, where Aramaic is the spoken language.
In Iraq there are also communities of two Chaldean religious orders: the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the Chaldean Daughters of Mary Immaculate. There is also a Chaldean monastic and missionary institution. Chaldean monks began by opening monasteries and evangelising the people living in the mountain ranges in Northern Iraq, and today they still teach at schools and hold catechism in Kurdish villages. Later they descended to Mosul and finally to Baghdad, where there is the headquarters of the General Superior today. The congregation now possesses four monasteries in Iraq, one in Rome and one mission in America.
Chaldean rite Christians are now more than 700,000, and at least as many are spread throughout the world.

- Syrian Catholics
They are a community of about 75,000 believers, living in Baghdad and Mosul. The Bishop in Baghdad is Bishop Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka and the community in Mosul is led by Bishop Basil Georges Casmoussa. The Church was born from the good relations established during the Crusades by some Catholics with several Syrian Orthodox Bishops. After the missions of Jesuits and Capuchin Franciscans, which started in Aleppo (Syria) in 1626, many Syrians returned to communion with Rome. The greatest number of Syrian Catholics is in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. In Iraq there are Syrian Catholics in the north: at Bassora there is a small community; in Baghdad there is a community of about 30,000; in Kirkuk and Mosul almost 45,000. The language most spoken is Arabic, but in some Iraqi villages people still use the ancient Assyrian language especially in Mosul, and in the village of Karakosh, where there are 25,000 Catholics. It should be remembered that the Patriarchate of Syrian Catholics is in Beirut, in Lebanon.

- Armenian Catholics
The Armenian communities present in Iraq come from the emigration and deportations of the Armenian population after 1915, following the massacres of the Young Turks' regime. The Armenian Church is inspired to the figure of St. Gregory the Illuminator, who Christianised Armenia in the III century. It is divided in Orthodox (or Apostolic) and Catholic. At Baghdad Armenian Sisters run a school attended by 800 pupils, half Armenians, half Muslims. The head of the small Armenian community present in Iraq (2,000 people) is the Patriarchal Administrator Andon Atamian. Before the nineties the Armenians (Catholic and Apostolic) in Iraq were somewhere between 20 and 30 thousand people. In the past decade, the community has decreased largely because of emigration due to poverty.

- Latin Catholics
For three centuries a large group of Latin missionaries has been working in Iraq: men and women belonging to religious congregations, in Baghdad and in the north of the country are working on pastoral activities in local parishes, gathering young people for catechesis, for the celebration of the Sacraments, around activities of solidarity to the poor. Latin missionaries learn Arabic and study the Chaldean liturgical and confessional traditions, becoming totally part of the local culture.
There are several religious orders present in Iraq: the Redemptorist Fathers, the Dominicans, the Carmelites, the Salesians, Antonian monks, Missionary Franciscans of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Dominican Sisters of the Presentation of the Virgin of Tours, who also run the St Raphael Hospital in Baghdad, Dominican Sisters of St Catherine of Sienna, the Little Sisters of Jesus, the Missionaries of Charity, who follow the charisma of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and take care of disabled children. The head of the small Catholic community of Latin rite (2,500 people), living mostly in Baghdad, is Archbishop Monsignor Jean Benjamin Sleiman.

Catholics in Iraq Chaldean Catholics: more than 700,000; Syrian Catholics 75,000; Armenians: 2,000; Latins: 2,500

(PA) (Agenzia Fides 24/4/2004 lines 353 words 3.850)