Iraqi Christians Face Up to a Bloody End
It was a day that started like any other. But what happened that spring morning will never be forgotten by those who experienced it.
On Sunday, May 2, 18 buses packed with 1,300 mostly Christian students made their way from Qaraqosh, in Iraq's Nineveh plain, to their university in the major city of Mosul.
As the buses passed through the various security checkpoints on their way into Mosul, there were two explosions. Improvised car bombs charged with deadly explosives were detonated causing serious damage to several of the buses. Inside, many of the students lay injured.
Initial reports stated that one person had died and 80 were injured but in the coming days the total number of wounded rose to nearly 200. Of those, at least 25 students were very seriously injured and had to be airlifted to hospital in Turkey.
Iraqi Christians are sadly no strangers to bomb blasts and other atrocities. Indeed, killings, kidnappings, threatening letters and other hostile actions have become a near permanent feature of everyday life for a section of society now increasingly set apart because of their religious beliefs.
But the bus blast took the intimidation to an altogether more serious level. That such a large-scale attack should take take place in a confined area between checkpoints was cause for alarm in itself. But add to it the number of indisputably innocent people involved and the incident suggests that the region is now just too dangerous for Christians. The attack bore the hallmarks of a well-organised operation, clear in its objectives to target Christians and certain of the resources necessary to do maximum damage.
The demonstrations in Christians towns outside Mosul made clear that the general population was only too aware of the gravity of the crisis it faces.
For Iraqi Christian leaders, meanwhile, the immediate aftermath of the tragedy was taken up with measures to ensure the injured received care and that relatives and friends received the support they needed.
In an emotional encounter just a few days after the attack a delegation of seven bishops from across the different Christian denominations and rites met 300 of the students, many of them with faces and limbs bandaged.
In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need a day later one of the bishops present, Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, told me: "When we met the students, we were very moved. There was crying and a lot of sadness. One student told us it is a miracle that only one person is dead."
But beyond bringing the present crisis under control, the bishops clearly need several miracles to solve the deeper problems that threaten the long-term survival of the Church in this ancient land of Christianity.
The most immediate concern of the students was to press for the establishment of a college in Qaraqosh. As a majority Christian town, they argued, it was safer to be there than take the daily risk of driving into Mosul, where for years now terrorists have sought to undermine the Catholic and Orthodox presence by any means possible, including violence. The bishops agreed to pursue this plan as a possibility.
For years now crisis management has been the order of the day, especially in Mosul where a series of violent outbreaks against Christians sparked a mass exodus prompting Aid to the Church in Need to send emergency aid to help senior clergy leading a relief operation for people taking shelter not only in Qaraqosh but also in other neighbouring Christian towns including Alqosh, Caramles and Telskuf.
But the underlying concern of the students that day when they met the bishops was renewed action to step up the safety of the Christians. And here the bishops have hit a brick wall.
The evidence of various campaigns of intimidation against Christians in Mosul strongly suggests that the city is heavily infiltrated by Islamist insurgents with access to hi-tech weapons and intelligence. In September 2008, when much of the city's Christian population fled following the killing of a dozen faithful, many (largely unsubstantiated) reports began to circulate about collusion between the insurgents and politicians.
It is not clear whether the objective is primarily political - to force Christians out of Mosul into the neighbouring Nineveh plains - or is purely an act motivated by religious bigotry. What is beyond dispute, however, is that Church leaders see a strong government as a pre-requisite for reducing the security risk.
The inconclusive results of the general election of March 7 created a drama out of a crisis by leaving no clear winner able to take power. Almost three months later, and although Iraq's electoral commission was able to declare that no electoral malpractice or fraud had taken place, the results of a re-count had still yet to be announced. Hence there was no breakthrough in the deadlock between former premier Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition party and Ayad Allawi of al-Iraqiyya, who won the most parliamentary seats but not enough to form an administration.
Fearing that extremist elements were benefiting from the political impasse Mosul's Syrian Catholic Archbishop Georges Casmoussa responded to the bus attack by calling for UN intervention. Pointing out that there was a muted response from politicians following the attack and few expressions of sympathy, he told ACN: "We're not asking for an armed response from the United Nations. The UN should push the central authorities to find out who are the real murderers and stop them."
Other bishops argue that UN intervention would only cause the anti-Christian attacks to escalate amid claims - comprehensively rejected - that the faithful are "agents of the West" and are as implacably opposed to Islam as their Crusader co-religionists of old.
What they all agree on is the need for strong government and the bishops who met the survivors of the bus bomb blasts concluded their meeting by agreeing to a joint statement calling for a swift resolution of the post-election chaos.
Few feel the heat of the moment more than Chaldean Archbishop Amil Nona of Mosul. Installed in January at the age of 42, he became the world's youngest Catholic Archbishop. In a recent interview with ACN he explained that Christian numbers in Mosul had plummeted from up to 30,000 before 2004 to barely 5,000 today.
Times of persecution are bringing forth people of exemplary courage and faith. Those who have stayed in Mosul thus far are, by and large, committed to the cause of Christianity's survival. In a statement to ACN Archbishop Nona explained: "What I want to do is to serve, to give the people who are suffering a sense of hope, a reason for believing that a better future is possible. This can be achieved through good planning based on a realistic assessment of our difficult circumstances."
But the threat posed by the current political crisis may indicate that the only "realistic assessment" possible is for Christians to leave Mosul for good.
Indeed, if law and order does not return soon, Christianity in and around Mosul - if not elsewhere - could soon be a thing of the past.
By John Pontifexwww.catholicherald.co.uk