NEW YORK — For 25 years, Stephen Rasche served as an international lawyer — traveling the world for commercial work. But in 2015, at the request of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, he made the decision to relocate to Erbil, Iraq — where now serves as Vice Chancellor at the Catholic University in Erbil and Director of the Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity — in an effort to wake up his fellow Christians to pay attention to the plight of region’s Christians who were on the verge of extinction.
In his new book, The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East, Rasche chronicles the dramatic decline of Christians in the Middle East, many of whom feel abandoned by their counterparts in the Western world, and the policy decisions that have led to their current predicament.
Released to coincide with the Lenten season, in his interview with Crux, Rasche describes how 2,000 years of history risks being lost if Christians are completely driven out of Iraq. Further, he weighs in on the possibility of a papal visit to the country, the ongoing tensions between neighboring Iran and the U.S. and the need for peace, and how Christians in the region view the Trump administration.
Crux: You write that many Iraqi Christians say, “Bush has blood on his hands for the way he came in, but Obama has blood on his hands for the way he went out.” What’s the assessment of those who remain in the region of President Trump? Is that the same for those who have left and are seeking asylum in the U.S.?
Rasche: There was great hope amongst the Christians when the Trump administration first came in, which was tempered in the first two years as those hopes ran up against the reality of the institutional inertia of the existing aid paradigms and the utter dysfunction of the Iraqi central government. There has been real traction however in the past year in terms of assistance and the Iraqi Christians still place great hope in the Trump administration.
As for those who have left the country and are in the diaspora, they do not hold any real hopes of getting into the U.S. now due to the heavy U.S. visa restrictions in place. For those already in the U.S. seeking asylum, theirs is a different story now, and certainly there is wariness in their communities as to what will happen to them.
You cite examples of both Jews and Muslims that have stood in solidarity with the Christians in Iraq. Can you provide some examples of this and why it’s been significant?
There is a chapter in the book that deals with the importance of the Jewish voice. Speaking from their historical position and unique moral standing, these voices stood out at a time when much of the world, including much of the Catholic world, was largely silent. In a sense, the Jewish voice of solidarity was also a rebuke of sorts to the West — these are your people, it said, how can you not care?
For the Muslims, we can look to those moderate voices of Islam, such as KH Yahya Cholil Staquf, who wrote very strong praise for this book, who are saying to the West — listen to the cries of your people, they are telling you something important, and they are speaking the truth.
There’s been talk of — and an expressed desire by Pope Francis — for a papal visit to Iraq. What’s the likelihood of this happening and should it happen, what do you imagine the response will be?
Our understanding is that this visit has been put off indefinitely due to the danger and instability of the situation on the ground — which is very real. It does not appear that this situation will be resolved any time soon, so the likelihood to us now seems very far away.
Were His Holiness ever to come, for the Iraqi Christians I think they would hope and pray that the visit would primarily be one of solidarity with them in their immense suffering and persecution, in which case it would certainly be one of the most important moments in the 2,000 year history of Christianity in Iraq, perhaps even a saving moment for their remnant people.
You didn’t want to write this book initially out of some fear for personal safety. What’s been the reaction so far and how has it changed your life to date?
We will know better over the coming months. The planned talks and presentations have been all been postponed due to the coronavirus and the book is now just getting out through distributors. Based on the advance praise we hope there will be a good reception, especially amongst Christian readers during Lent and Easter. Certainly, we expect some opposition as well.
As for personal safety, I am resigned that it will likely affect my ability to travel as freely as in the past, especially in the Mideast. This was part of the price. But there remains plenty of important work in this effort that I can still do in different ways. Our faith always shows us the path – I have learned that in these past five years.
As the book was going to press, tensions were rising between the U.S. and Iran with Iraq caught in the middle. What’s your assessment on the state of that conflict and how can Iraqi Christians be protected in the midst of it?
That tension is still a very real and dangerous thing. Iraq could easily spiral down quickly into the new Syria. The coronavirus preoccupies Iran right now, and the border closure with Iraq affects their ability to support the militias which have been in conflict with the U.S. and coalition forces. But there are still many ways in which the violence escalates very quickly.
The one ray of hope is in the goals of the protest movement, which began last October. This is covered in the postscript of the book. But if there is sustained open conflict, much of it will inevitably land on the remaining Christians and that may well mark the final end of hope for their survival. So in a real sense, peace in Iraq is the best remaining hope for the Christians of Iraq.
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212