Insecurity on the streets and fear of persecution under a future theocratic government have induced many Iraqi Christians to emigrate to North America, Europe and Australia, said the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad while visiting the University of Notre Dame's Law School.
On Monday, Jean Benjamin Sleiman,--a 58-year-old Carmelite priest and native of Lebanon who was appointed the Archbishop of Baghdad in 2001--was invited by the University to speak about the plight of Christians in Iraq.
"Churches without believers will be only monuments," Sleiman said, according to an local newspaper in Indiana. "As Christians, everybody has a mission. And their mission is to be Christians in the Middle East. Their presence is very important, not just for themselves, but for others.
"Christians are diminishing in a way that is very dangerous," he said.
According to Sleiman, in the 1960s, about 20-percent of Iraq's population was Christian, however now Christians comprise about 3 percent of the country's population.
Saddened by the continuing flow of Christians out of Iraq and other places in the Middle East, including Israel, Sleiman said the current military situation in Iraq, the former economic sanctions against the country, and prior armed conflicts have caused many Christians to emigrate.
However the fall of Saddam Hussein and the desire to repair the country offer an opportunity to reverse the migration trend, he said.
"Even Iraq is now a country of hope," said Sleiman, who originally opposed the U.S.-led invasion of the country.
Under Saddam's regime, he said, all religions were on an equal plane of toleration. However now, under an Islamic-influenced government, he said he fears that Christians could become second-class citizens.
The rebuilding process in Iraq will take many years, Sleiman said.
He explained that while the war in Iraq brought freedom, not everyone can participate in that freedom because of lack of security.
"To rebuild peace is more difficult than to make war," he said.
Sleiman explained that Iraq still represents a tribal society, where one is more loyal to his or her group than to his or her self.
Another difficulty faced by Christians in Iraq is that some Iraqi Muslim see the invasion by the United States and others as a Christian crusade.
He said it's important that Christians in Iraq remain united with each other and open to Muslims and those of other religions. He cited past disagreements between Evangelical Christians and Catholics in Iraq as evidence that Christians have not always been united there.
In a recent interview, Sleiman said that while Saddam Hussein’s regime was dreadful, "war creates other problems, new problems. It creates hate, it creates (resentment) of others by destroying things, and many times war destroys souls and minds."
Estimates of the number of Iraqi Christians vary, but it is widely believed that they represent some 3 percent of the population, or from 600,000 to 800,000 people.
Notre Dame's Kellogg Institute for International Studies sponsored Sleiman's visit. Sleiman was in the United States for a Carmelite Institute conference in Chicago last week.
[Source: The South Bend Tribune]