Islam has been the dominant religion in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley for 1,400 years. Christians have been there for two millenniums and maintain a quiet presence today in what is now Iraq.
Estimates of Iraq's Christian population range from 600,000 to 800,000 -- roughly 3 percent of the overall population of 25 million. No one knows for sure.
Christians, who practiced with relative freedom under Saddam Hussein, are leaving -- or trying to leave -- out of fear that a Muslim-dominated government will control Iraq, said the Rev. Jean Benjamin Sleiman, Latin-rite (Roman Catholic) archbishop of Baghdad.
Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics whose church is autonomous from Rome, with its own liturgy and leadership, but recognizes the authority of the pope. Chaldeans trace their lineage to the Babylonian-Mesopotamian nation of Chaldees, where the patriarch Abraham was born.
Other Christians include Roman and Syriac Catholics; Assyrians (Church of the East); Greek, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox; and Presbyterians, Anglicans and evangelicals.
Sleiman, 58, is a Lebanese-born Carmelite priest who holds doctorates in theology from the Paris Catholic Institute and in anthropology from the Sorbonne. He speaks six languages, including Arabic and English, and became archbishop of Baghdad in January 2001.
Since the U.S.-led coalition began massing troops on Iraq's borders, Sleiman has spoken of the need for a multinational reconstruction and peace effort, criticized the coalition's dismantling of the Iraqi military, condemned foreign evangelicals for openly trying to convert Muslims and urged Iraqi Christians not to desert their country.
Sleiman is scheduled to speak next Saturday at a Carmelite conference in Chicago, hosted by the Washington-based Carmelite Institute. He agreed to an interview with Washington Post staff writer Bill Broadway by e-mail from Baghdad and Rome, where he stopped before flying to the United States. An edited version follows.
Q How many Latin-rite Christians are in Iraq, and where do most of them live and worship?
A The Roman Catholic (Latin) Church in Iraq began as a missionary church. It began in the early 17th century with Carmelite missions in Persia and Mesopotamia. The missionaries baptized many who converted because the Shah Abbas, the Shah of Persia during the first decades of the 17th century, was very tolerant. He encouraged the Holy See to appoint a bishop for them.
From the beginning until now, the Latin Church in Iraq also has been the church of foreigners who belong to the Roman Catholic Church. They once numbered about 60,000, but most disappeared with the first Gulf War because of security concerns and the postwar embargo, which reduced or eliminated their businesses.
The native Iraqi Latins are a very small community that counts about 3,000 people, having lost 2,000 to emigration because of the embargo. Most Latins, like most other Christians in Iraq, have lived in Baghdad since the 1960s. Socioeconomic changes pushed people to reach the capital with the hope of a better life, and the fighting between the government and the Kurds forced from the north many Christians whose villages have been destroyed or occupied.
There are three Latin parishes in Iraq, the principal one [anchored by] the Cathedral of St. Joseph near the center of Baghdad, not far from the National Theatre and the former U.S. Embassy. Most of the Masses are in Arabic, and we have one Mass in English at King Christ Church near Saint Raphael Hospital. Masses in Latin are celebrated on Christmas and Easter.
The Latin Church also has many religious orders, such as Carmelites, Dominicans, Redemptorists and Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. There are many priests, nuns, friars and brothers, along with consecrated laypeople -- those who take vows of obedience, poverty and chastity but do not live in monasteries. They continue their regular activities and live with their families.
Describe what it has been like being a Christian in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion. Is it different from the way it was when Saddam Hussein was in power?
Surely it's different. Under the regime, there was one dominant religion: the Baath Party. So the authorities treated all religions with a certain equality.
Concretely, it means that people could freely pray but only intra muros [within the walls] of churches or mosques or priories and so forth. The regime was strongly opposed to printing and other media. We Christians and members of other faiths could not publish religious literature, have a radio or TV station or otherwise promote our religions.
Since the end of the war in March 2003, there is a very real freedom, but we cannot enjoy it because of general insecurity, the high level of fanaticism and the belief of some Islamic leaders that Iraqi Christians are being assimilated into the coalition forces, who are perceived as Christians or even crusaders.
It means that it is still hard to be Christian in Iraq. You have to live a hidden religious life.
Before the war, many Iraqi Christians worried that a Shiite-led government, or one influenced by Shiites [60 percent of the population], would oppress Christians. What do you think?
That's very true. An Islamic republic -- that is, a theocratic regime -- will be more oppressive and more alienating than every other tyrannical regime. It will take away the freedom of conscience, basic human rights and the freedom of culture.
But I am sure that many Muslims oppose a theocratic regime. So I hope, with the assistance of the international community, and especially with the aid of the U.S.A., the future Iraqi society will be a little bit more democratic, more humane.
In recent months there have been reports of Christians being beaten or killed by Muslims. Have you heard such reports or know personally of those kinds of acts against Christians by fellow Iraqis?
That's true also. Many events in civil Iraqi society are hidden. The media pay interest to political and military fightings. What's often not reported are kidnappings and murders of Christians and threats against bishops -- Chaldean, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox -- especially in Mosul [location of ancient Nineveh and a center of Chaldean Christianity].
But it's due to Islamic fundamentalist and extremist groups. We cannot say that there is a general Islamic persecution of Christians. Still, in the shadow of general insecurity and violence, Christians are suffering and frightened.
I must confess that many Muslims also have been victims of similar violence.
What would you like most to tell Americans about the political, religious and social situation in Iraq?
I will say that Iraqi society has been oppressed for a long time. Minds were imprisoned and didn't evolve. So after liberation, the society fell into anarchy and confusion. It will take time to find internal peace, to reconcile Iraqis with their history, even with themselves.
To that end, I want to emphasize the important role of the United States, which as the leader of the world has a human and deeply ethical mission in Iraq.
Military intervention cannot renew this society; economic projects are unable to give this society, as we say according to Holy Bible, a "new heart." It's the values that America lives and defends -- religious faith, freedom, dignity of men and women, morality -- that can help people change their minds, to help them evolve in their culture.
The idea of the person as a free, responsible and autonomous individual isn't recognized in Iraq. The group, the tribe, the community or the family impose to persons values and customs. There are still families that choose a bride for their son or a groom for their daughter.
What primary message will you bring to those who attend the Carmelite conference in Chicago?
I will try to share hope with all of the brothers, sisters and friends of our conference. The Christian hope is the light in dark times.
There's been talk by many people about God having a hand in current events, that events are unfolding as part of His plan. Do you believe God has planned all that has happened, and will happen, from the beginning of time?
I believe in our merciful God. I am also sure that human beings are free and responsible. So if there are plans, those are human. God plans our salvation, our peace, our communion. But many human individuals, leaders or leading groups plan to reach their own interests. We humans are responsible. God hopes that we one day will resolve our problems in the light of his revelation.
Will there ever be peace in the Middle East? If so, what will bring it about?
Peace in Middle East sounds now like a dream. It's utopic. But I think like Thomas More that the utopia of today will be the reality of tomorrow. So we have to not stop efforts to build peace.
What has been the reaction of the people you know to the turnover of power to the Iraqi authorities and the trial of Saddam Hussein?
Many Iraqis knew of the handover after it was done, but they didn't pay real attention. I am noticing a deep contradiction between the proudness and joy to recover the sovereignty, even if it's still relative, and the anger against the liberators. We can say that generally a feeling of satisfaction can be seen.
As for the trial of Saddam, as you know, there are many points of view. People will be interested, maybe amazed, by the trial and the many Byzantine turns it will take.
I think that Saddam died politically on April the 9th : With all his regime, he left Baghdad; he abandoned his government, his army and his people. He should have left power before then, as he had been encouraged to do. He could have avoided many dramas.
But he sacrificed all on the altar of his narcissism.
The Rev. Jean Benjamin Sleiman at St. Joseph's. He is the Latin-rite Catholic archbishop of Baghdad.Parishioners and Carmelites walk with the Rev. Jean Benjamin Sleiman around the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad in a ceremonial candlelight vigil. Sleiman holds a painting of the Virgin Mary.A celebrant holds a rosary in prayer.During a processional to celebrate the Sacred Heart of Jesus, participants walk through the Cathedral of St. Joseph. Sleiman, left, and one of his Carmelite priests lead a Saturday afternoon service at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Baghdad.