Roman Catholic Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman is accustomed to the news he hears these days in Baghdad: Islamic vigilantes attacking a liquor store owned by one of his parishioners, saying alcohol is forbidden in the Koran. And, extremists threatening bishops, demanding they must convert to Islam or be killed.
Under Saddam Hussein’s officially secular regime, Christians could worship freely as long as they weren’t overt about their beliefs, said Sleiman, who arrived in Chicago over the weekend from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Baghdad.
But now that a host of Islamic extremists are jockeying for power in post-Hussein Iraq, Christians from Mosul in the northern part of the country to Basra in the south reportedly feel intimidated and are trying to flee the country.
Shiite Muslims make up about 60 percent of Iraq’s 25 million people; Christians number about 800,000. The region was once home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East.
“Even though you find friendships among Christians and Muslims, Christians are facing attacks from a minority of extremists from all sides– Sunnis and Shiites,” Sleiman said. “Some of the Christians’ fears are exaggerated. But still, religion is being used as an instrument to take political control.”
Sleiman, 58, a Lebanese member of the Discalced Carmelite order, was invited to Chicago and other Midwestern cities as part of a conference sponsored by the Carmelite Institute in Washington. He said mass Sunday at the Saints Faith, Hope and Charity Parish in Winnetka and spoke Monday at the University of Chicago. His talk and visit to the Archdiocese of Chicago was sponsored in part by the city’s Lumen Christi Institute.
For many Christians, Sleiman said, living in Iraq was never easy. Under Hussein’s regime they were banned from running religious schools or practicing their faith outside churches.
Sleiman visited Iraq for six days in 1994 and vowed never to return.
That changed when he received word in 2001, while he was leading his religious order in Rome, that Pope John Paul II had decided he should head the Baghdad Archdiocese.
“When I visited the Carmelite order back then, I felt Iraq was a big prison. And I said, `never again.’ But of course I followed the pope’s orders.”
Sleiman said there is hope that if respected Shiite clerics emerge victorious from the power struggle, Iraq could become a free country.
Many of the raids on liquor stores in Iraq, some of which are owned by Christians, have been orchestrated by al-Mahdi Army, a militia devoted to Moqtada Sadr, a Shiite cleric who opposes the U.S. presence and has vowed to establish a strict Islamic state in Iraq.
The hope among many Christians in Iraq, said Sleiman, was for Hussein to be toppled without a war.
“My desire was to change the regime without war,” said the archbishop, who has criticized the U.S.-led invasion. “Now, some things are better and others are worse than they were under Saddam.”
When he returns to Iraq, Sleiman said he will continue to encourage his Carmelite order, founded in Iraq in the 17th Century, to practice its faith, no matter how tense the situation becomes. At Sunday mass, Saint Joseph’s often draws 2,000 parishioners.
“I live in a house near the church where the angels, not bodyguards, protect me,” he said.
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