The outgoing president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops urged the U.S. government to “redouble its efforts to assist Iraqis” in providing safety for its citizens, especially religious minorities. “To meet its moral obligations to the Iraqi people, it is critically important that the United States take additional steps now to help Iraq protect its citizens, especially Christians and others who are victims of organized attacks,” said Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago in a letter to President Obama dated Nov. 9. (New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan was elected to replace Cardinal George on Nov. 16; his three-year term began on Nov. 18.)
The cardinal sent the letter after the attack on the Syrian Catholic church in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on Oct. 31 that killed 58 people and wounded 75. During the opening session of the bishops’ fall general assembly in Baltimore on Nov. 15, Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, said the attack on the church also raises the issue of how Christians who have left Iraq are faring in the countries where they are living as refugees.
He noted that before the war, there were more than 900,000 Christians in Iraq; now there are fewer than 350,000. “Many who fled are wandering around, looking for work” in countries that are not equipped to handle the demand. “Our country has not stepped up to help,” said Cardinal McCarrick, adding that “these people have nothing and cannot go back.”
Cardinal George noted that he had been discussing the issue with Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States. While previously the stance of the church had been to encourage people to return to Iraq so the Christian community does not disappear in the country, Cardinal George said the recent developments make clear this is not a viable option.
The U.S.C.C.B. and the Vatican have been in contact with the State Department to encourage a shift in policy on admitting Iraqi refugees, Cardinal George said in his remarks to the bishops, who affirmed his letter to the president by acclamation. In the letter, the cardinal reminded the president that the U.S. bishops had expressed “grave moral questions” before the U.S.-led combat began in Iraq and had warned of the “unpredictable consequences” of that action. Cardinal George said, “The decimation of the Christian community in Iraq and the continuing violence that threatens all Iraqis are among those tragic consequences.” The attack, along with recent bombings in Baghdad, “are grim evidence of the savage violence and lack of security that has plagued the Iraqi people, especially Christians and other minorities, for over seven years.”
Cardinal George said, “Having invaded Iraq, our nation has a moral obligation not to abandon those Iraqis who cannot defend themselves.”
The cardinal outlined a series of minimum steps that the United States and the international community must help Iraq achieve: enable the Iraqi government to function for the common good of all Iraqis; build the capacity of Iraq’s military and police to provide security for all citizens, including minorities; improve the judicial system and rule of law; promote reconciliation and the protection of human rights, especially religious freedom; rebuild Iraq’s economy so that Iraqis can support their families; assist refugees and internally displaced Iraqis.