June 2008 – Christians in Iraq received yet another ominous message from Muslim radicals as Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped February 29. Meanwhile the Roman Catholic Church is negotiating with Saudi Arabia in the hope that, for the first time, that country might allow a church to be built there.
According to The Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), the body of the Chaldean archbishop was found in March in Mosul, Iraq. The kidnappers killed the archbishop’s driver and two guards in the process, but an autopsy had not determined if the archbishop was killed or died of natural causes.
IRD said it was obvious that the kidnappers did not want a ransom because they made demands that were impossible for the Catholic church to meet. The Catholic News Agency said the extremists demanded exorbitant sums of money and that the U.S. release Iraqi prisoners, neither of which the church could do.
A priest in Mosul said the real goal of the radicals was to push Christians out. “They are pressuring us to leave Mosul and leave our church,” the priest said. “And many families in Mosul are afraid, because if they killed the bishops and the priests, then. …”
Faith J.H. McDonnell, director of religious liberty programs for IRD, said: “The Chaldean Christians, some of the last remaining speakers of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, are suffering under the persecution of Jihadis [Muslim ‘holy warriors’] that seek to drive them from their ancestral homes and create a pure Islamic caliphate erased of the memory of Iraqi Christians.”
The plight of Iraqi Christians has received scant attention outside the Christian media. Muslim extremists have indicated that they want all Iraqi Christians – most of whom are Assyrian – to submit to Islam or leave the country. (See AFA Journal, 10/07.)
That pressure appears to be working. A report released in 2007 by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said that since April 2003, 50% of Assyrian Christians have fled Iraq.
Thousands of Christians followed the funeral procession after the body of Archbishop Rahho was recovered. The Catholic News Agency reported that Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, asked Iraqi Christians not to respond with violence.
“The people of the church should be self-restrained and patient,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Vatican is allegedly holding confidential negotiations with the Saudi government over whether or not that country will allow a church to be built.
Saudi Arabia has one of the strictest policies in the Muslim world regarding other faiths. Practicing another religion other than Islam is forbidden, and even owning a Bible can lead to grave consequences. But according to The Times (London), Archbishop Paul-Mounged El-Hachem, a papal representative to several Middle East countries, said the Vatican is negotiating with the Saudis for “the authorization of the building of Catholic churches” in that nation.
Fr. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican, told The Times, “If, as we hope, we reach an agreement authorizing the construction of the first church in Saudi Arabia, it will be a step of historic importance.”
Not everyone is thrilled with the idea of a church in that country. Anwar Ashiqi, president of the Saudi Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, said he didn’t think that was currently possible. “It would be possible to launch official negotiations to construct a church in Saudi Arabia only after the Pope and all the Christian churches recognize the prophet Muhammad,” he said. “If they don’t recognize him as a prophet, how can we have a church in the Saudi kingdom?”
El-Hachem said there was a need for churches in the country. “There are around three or four million Christians in Saudi Arabia, and we hope they will have churches,” he said.
But according to Adnkronos International, an Italian news agency, at least one Saudi official denied the claim.
Abdelaziz al-Thinani, a member of the Saudi Arabia Consultative Council, claimed there are no Christian nationals in the country at all – that virtually the entire population of Saudi Arabia is Muslim. “Those few Christians do not reside in the country permanently, they come and go” as foreign workers from other countries, he said.
The Times said the announcement of negotiations between the Vatican and Saudi officials came the day after the opening of the first Catholic church in Qatar, an Islamic country on the Persian Gulf, adjacent to Saudi Arabia. Some 15,000 Christians attended the service.