Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, a native of Iraq, a Dominican priest, and a Chaldean Catholic, is a leader of one of the oldest surviving religious communities in the world. Christians have lived in Iraq for 2000 years, but for the last 800 years the Christian minority in the region has suffered widespread religious and ethnic persecution. As founder and director of the Digital Center for Eastern Manuscripts in Mosul, Iraq, Fr. Najeeb has expended great energy, often in the midst of threats to his life, salvaging and preserving the story of Christian experience in Iraq throughout history. During his tenure as a resident scholar at the Collegeville Institute last spring, Fr. Najeeb sat down with Janel Kragt Bakker to talk about the plight of Christians in modern-day Iraq.
Your church is part of the Chaldean tradition. Tell us about this tradition and its role in Iraq.
The Chaldean Church began in what is now Iraq in the first century CE. In the sixteenth century it was integrated into the Catholic Church. “Chaldean” is a description for old Aramaic, the mother tongue for those of us who are ethnic Assyrians in Iraq. Chaldean Catholics in Iraq speak Aramaic at home and Arabic everywhere else. I was born into the Chaldean tradition and am happy to be part of this very old Christian community.
In Iraq, it is very hard for people to change their religion—especially for people to become Christians—so religion is like a demographic category. There are a number of Christian communities in Iraq in addition to Chaldean Catholics. Some are Orthodox, some are Orthodox Catholic, and some are Protestant. But all have been persecuted. Despite our differences, we all walk together, respect each other, and are very near to each other. We all believe in the same Jesus Christ.
What has happened to Christians in Iraq since 2003?
Before the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were about 1.3 million Christians in Iraq, representing almost five percent of the population. Now, because of martyrdom and migration due to widespread persecution, Christians make up less than two percent of the population. Many Christians have been killed, and others have moved to Turkey, Europe, the United States, or other regions of the world. Most of the Christians who remain in Iraq have moved from Mosul and Bagdad to northern areas of the country where it is safer for them.
Christians have suffered for many centuries in Iraq due to invasions from Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Ottoman forces. Under Saddam Hussain, Iraqi Christians were pressured to identify as Arabs. Violence against them rose, and some were forced to convert to Islam. But after the American invasion in 2003, everything got worse. At first, we were all happy to receive the Americans to help deliver us from the totalitarian regime of Saddam Hussain. But a year after the invasion, we started to discover that the operation was not meant to help the Iraqi people but instead to keep the trouble inside Iraq. The American invasion destroyed the infrastructure of Iraq and installed a government that was worse than what we had before. Museums, schools, hospitals, and libraries were not protected. Only the oil industry was protected. Our supposed democracy does not work the same way that democracy works in Europe or the United States. Ethnic groups and religious groups fight each other and look out only for their own interests.
Many Iraqis, both Christians and Muslims, want to leave Iraq because the situation is so bad. But Christians especially are suffering. Many Christians from Mosul and Bagdad lost everything. Their homes were destroyed and they could not go back to them. They became poor. I know many rich families in Mosul and Bagdad who are now living off the help of charitable organizations. Iraqi Christians are targeted for violence and persecution even more so than in the past because our religion is the same as many Americans and we are associated with them. Christian students cannot go to school or university because they will be attacked, and Christians cannot move freely or worship in public. Many of our priests and bishops have been kidnapped. Some have been killed.
Iraqi Christians have been attacked twice. We have been attacked by the American military along with the rest of the Iraqi population. And we have been attacked by other Iraqis because we are Christians. We don’t know what else to do in this situation. We tell other Iraqis that we too are Iraqis, not Americans. We may have the same religion as some Americans, but many Americans are not Christians, and we Iraqi Christians don’t identify with Americans just because we are Christians. But other Iraqis don’t understand. They have attacked our churches and destroyed our property. Little by little, we are trying to open our churches again. We hope that some of the Christian population will come back to Iraq to restart our heritage, church, and faith there.
What dangers do you face as a priest in Iraq?
More than 1,000 Christians have been killed. Priests are especially targeted. Friends of mine have been martyred, including five priests and one bishop. It is not very easy to live our life day-to-day. Many times when we are leaving our monastery, church, or home, we say goodbye to each other because we are not sure whether or not we will make it back. Several times during Mass, bombs have gone off very near to our church. Our church has been bombed more than 15 times. It is without doors and windows. But we continue to celebrate the Mass even so. We prefer to dine all together during the Mass. Like ancient Christian communities, we celebrate underground because it is safer.
Given this dire situation, why have you decided to stay in Iraq?
From a legal standpoint, I could stay in the U.S. or Europe, but I believe it is better for me to stay with my own population, in my own country. I want to be there to help people—especially the handicapped, the homeless, and families who are in trouble—not just with material things but also to help give them direction, power, and faith. We are there supporting each other, walking together, falling together.
What is your community’s relationship like with your Muslim neighbors?
Our priory tries to help everyone, whether they are Christians or Muslims. But it is harder to help Muslims because they are suspicious of us. Most Muslims are good men and women, but Islamic fundamentalism is being used to polarize and oppress people. Fundamentalist groups don’t want the general population living in health and safety. They don’t respect human life and human rights. We can’t talk freely with them, but we try to live with them and love them. Many of our Muslim neighbors have tried to protect the Christian community, but they have been attacked also because they have tried to help us. And the American army has not done anything to resolve the situation, but rather American forces have sought to protect their own interests.
How do you know who to trust?
We trust in God, and we believe that God is good. We also believe in doing good to each other. There are many minorities in Iraq, and most of them are afraid. Many things are good in Iraq, but they are hidden. We are scared to do good to each other because so much has been destroyed. But many people want to do what is good, to rebuild Iraq, and to prepare for the future.
How do you find joy in the midst of all this suffering?
Joy comes from the inside and not the outside. People can be very rich and not feel joy. Happiness and joy do not come from money, they come from inside our minds and hearts and spirits. When we love each other and help each other, that is joy. They can kill our flesh and body, but they cannot kill our soul.
At the Collegeville Institute, we have noticed that you love to laugh and tell jokes. Does your sense of humor help you face the challenges you are up against?
I believe loving and laughing are the best ways to be in good health. We walk together, talk together, laugh together, cry together, and change our situation together. If I am sad, I don’t do anything and the situation doesn’t change for the better. If I am happy, I stand better. I have better health to act for the good. I give a sunny day to people and give them more power.
When you think about the future for Christians in Iraq, what gives you hope?
First of all, I believe in a future for the Christian community in Iraq, and I believe also that Iraq should not stay as it is now. Things can change. Many big empires have fallen. If I am doing my best, and you are doing your best, and the population sees us and starts doing their best, then we can be better in the future. Fighting and war are bad everywhere, all the time. War is against human rights. We are against violence and everything that takes human life. We pray for peace. There is trouble now in Iraq, but we pray and hope and work for a better future.
As Christians we are very strong and proud. Our faith is stronger than it was at the beginning of the American invasion. We take the cross, we take the church, and we hold them. We suffer and die as martyrs. The situation is bad. But we have hope. It is not very easy for us to say that we will be saved, but our faith is here and it is strong.
Fr. Najeeb concluded the interview by sharing prayers from the Aramaic liturgy. Sung in Aramaic, which Fr. Najeeb reminds us is the language of Jesus and the apostles, “Our Father” and “Hail Mary” are prayed every day in the Aramaic liturgy. Listen to Fr. Najeeb sing these prayers.