Speaking recently on the state of Christianity in his home country, the Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See claimed that Western media have unintentionally played into terrorists' hands by focusing on the plight of Iraq's embattled Christian community.
Provocative enough for you? Keep reading --
The nation of Iraq is at a critical point, said Ambassador Habeeb Mohammed Hadi Ali Al-Sadr, in which Muslims and Christians both are threatened by Islamic fundamentalists and their terrorist forces. Yet by making Christians in particular their target -- a story they know will resonate widely in the Western world -- Al-Sadr argued that the extremists are striking at any semblance of Iraq's fragile unity and perpetuating the image of a chaotic nation sharply divided among sectarian lines that will never sustain a democracy. As he told his audience in Velletri, Italy:
... [I]t is neither just nor equitable to analyze the situation of Iraqi Christians, abstracting them from the global situation and not taking into account objective data.
... For their part, the terrorists have understood that the blood of Iraqi Muslims, which they have shed like rivers, is not so interesting in the eyes of the Western media.
And from the moment in which, pretending to impose a twisted and altogether mistaken idea of the diversity of Iraqi society, and consequently annulling the democratic experience, and striking Christians, they have attained their evil objective. Without realizing it, the media and international organizations have fallen into this mechanism, playing the game of the terrorists, being concerned about the Christians, their future and the society's lack of development. The consequence has been the abandonment by Christians of their homes and emigration.
It's all well and good to look at the escalation of attacks on Iraqi Christians from the viewpoint of what should be the ultimate goal of Iraq's political leadership: stability in this most unstable of nations, along both political and religious lines. Likewise, Al-Sadr's point about the tragedy of this ancient Christian community fleeing its homeland has been lamented by both local Church leaders and Pope Benedict himself.
Yet is Al-Sadr's claim about an unbalanced focus on Iraq's Christians an honest, helpful criticism meant to bring context to such an intricate situation? Or is this a whitewashing of one of the most staggering tragedies of the past decade: the "religicide" of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and the new Iraqi government's failure to stop it? (CatholicCulture.org points out that Al-Sadr's comments directly contradict the pleas of Iraqi bishops for the West to not ignore the slaughter of the country's Christians).
Al-Sadr also paints the terrorist forces as "associations of Saddam infidels" and points out that Iraqi Christians' woes began under Hussein's regime -- a fair point, but one balanced by the views of Christians such as Archbishop Georges Casmoussa, head of the Syriac Catholic church in Mosul, who in a recent interview with Asia Times compared the plight of Christians now to the situation pre-2003:
"Americans came here to bring us democracy. What democracy? To be allowed to kill without any responsibility?" said Casmoussa. "Freedom is not to do what we have in mind. Now it is a jungle. Whoever is toughest, he will kill the other."
... "We didn't have rights more than now, but we had security," said Casmoussa, while in the shadow of the six heavily armed guards who protect his home and office. "When you are a minority you have to accept some hard situations, but when you are faced with death or killing you start to ask, why? How can I tell families to stay when there is no security?"
The ambassador's address did end with some highlights for Iraq's Christian community, such as the setting aside of five extra parliamentary seats for Christian politicians, and Iraqi Prime Minister Al Maliki's formation of a security council as a response to the October massacre in Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation cathedral.
In fact, Al-Sadr said, Christians in Iraq "enjoy full liberty of worship, ensured by very rigorous protection which many mosques don't enjoy."
One wonders what the Christians in Mosul would say in response.
In the end, the ambassador's remarks are an insightful look into the political mind of a fledgling government desperately striving to hold its nation together. He clearly speaks with hope for an Iraq in which both the Muslim and Christian populations enjoy full freedoms and equality. The question is whether reality backs up his cause for optimism -- and here, I think, is where the issue of media coverage of Christians' plight comes into play.
"My people can only breathe their identity with two lungs, Muslim and Christian," Al-Sadr concludes. "An Iraq without Christians is an Iraq without identity and symbols."
That much, at least, is true.