ROME – When Cardinal Patriarch Louis Sako presided over the episcopal ordinations of the new Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Najib Mikhael Mousa and the new auxiliary of the country’s capital, Bishop Robert Jarjis, on Jan. 18, the message seemed clear: There’s life for Christianity in Iraq after ISIS.
“As you know, episcopal ‘rank’ is a call rather than a privilege and the bishop is nothing but servant of people and the bearer of hope, God’s love and forgiveness,” Sako said in his homily. “He’s there for them, not otherwise. A bishop is the spiritual father for his priests and his community, especially the displaced, in our case, keeping a spiritual fraternal [and] paternal bond with them.”
In a line that could easily belong to Pope Francis, Sako said that a bishop is a “a father, who treats his children equally with love and tenderness … who listens to them and deals with their problems seriously and modestly and offers help as much as he can.”
“Subsequently, episcopal authority is to serve and teach on both a spiritual and human basis rather than ‘domination’,” he said. “Beware that the priest or bishop becomes a contractor!”
At a time when many bishops around the world face criticism for the way they have historically dealt with scandals and crimes, Sako quoted the first letter of St. Paul to Timothy, which says: “a bishop must be blameless …, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not argumentative, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well…”
The new archbishop of Mosul was born in the war-torn city on September 9, 1955.
“He will be able to do many things for the good of the city, being well aware of reality and having a great network of friendships and personal relationships even with Muslims,” a local source told Crux.
“During the years of the occupation by the terrorist organization, this Dominican father contributed to the support of the displaced people of Mosul and the towns of the Nineveh Plain and, thanks to his work as administrator of the archives of the Dominican Convent, protected the cultural heritage of the northern Iraqi city from destruction,” the source said.
In addition, Mousa was asked to protect and catalogue the Chaldean Patriarchal Archives, where currently he and other collaborators are seeking documentation regarding the Ottoman Genocide of the years 1915-1918.
Speaking directly to him, Sako said he’s “fully aware of the difficulties of the ‘devastated’ city of Mosul.”
Regardless, he said, the archbishop’s mission is to deepen the joy of liberation and establish the hope of returning, by working closely with two other archbishops, Petrus Moshi, a Syrian Catholic; and Daowd Sharewf, Syrian Orthodox.
According to the cardinal, Mousa is also called to work with people of good will in “building trust between diverse components of society in Mosul, for promoting coexistence and dismantling the ‘residues’ left by ISIS, such as ideology, customs and traditions.”
“This is the greatest challenge that requires active participation of the Church and Christians in public life in a city of ‘almost fully destroyed’ ancient Churches,” Sako said. In fact, the bell tower of the city’s Dominican church is one of the few things that remained standing after the occupation of the city by the Islamic terrorist organization.
“A city in which Christians, in particular, contributed nationally, culturally and professionally, along the history,” he said. “We pray that you will be the new Jonah for Nineveh.”
In the famous Bible story, the ancient city of Nineveh responded to Jonah’s preaching and repented. Today, however, Christians on the Nineveh Plains, a fabled swath of land that overlaps the dividing line between northern Iraq and Kurdistan, have found it’s not quite so easy to change peoples’ hearts and minds.
Ironically, in 2008 the Nineveh Plains actually was floated as a possible safe haven for Christians from other areas of the country being driven from their homes by what would eventually come to be recognized as the ISIS genocidal campaign.
Six years later, genocide reached the plains. A cluster of villages that had been traditionally Christian or Yazidi for two millennia was wiped out, while tens of thousands of residents fled for their lives. Many headed for the Christian enclave of Ankawa in nearby Erbil, which is today claimed as the capital of an independent Kurdistan.
While in theory those fleeing Christians could have sought refuge in a UN-sponsored camp, very few ever did, fearing that the jihadist hatred that put them at risk at home wouldn’t have much difficulty penetrating the porous confines of a Muslim-dominated refugee camp either.
During the next four years, Mosul became a shadow of what it used to be. The construction of petrol-funded skyscrapers was halted, and malls, churches, parks and streets became informal settlements where people survived thanks to the Catholic Church and charitable organizations such as the papal foundation Aid to the Church in Need and Crux sponsor, the Knights of Columbus.
Some of those Christians decided to leave the region altogether, most seeking new lives abroad in Australia, North America or Europe, but the majority stuck it out – in part out of a rugged determination that Christianity wouldn’t be wiped out of its historic homeland. Sako played a key role in this effort, never tiring of urging the international community to take action and not remain impassive to the suffering of hundreds of thousands.
In his homily, Sako’s message to Jarjis was much more bounded, simply calling on the new bishop to adapt to the new “communal” life and become a member of the “Patriarchal Team” working with “eagerness, understanding, love and humility.”
Sako called on the new bishops to love Iraq, “our homeland,” as their identity, and to work for the nation’s unity and stability, and called on the community to support the prelates, as “the strength and happiness of the leader comes from having his people around him.”