Wednesday, May 07, 2008


It was not without irony that I spent Lazarus Saturday, the festival of the resurrected man, attending a memorial service at the Syriac Orthodox Church of St Ephraim in Reservoir, in memory of the late Father Youssef Adel Aboudi, who was gunned down in early April while he was on his way to his church of St Peter’s in Baghdad. His crime? Simply that of being a Christian, and a non-Arab, in today’s fundamentalist, anarchic and decidedly intolerant Iraq.
As I sat in the church, with my parish priest, and representatives and clergy of all the Eastern churches, listening to the intonation of ancient and doleful chants promising eternal life in unsurpassable Western Aramaic and seeing the pain and fervour on the faces of the congregation, I marvelled at how easily all the stories of persecution garnered from years of Greek school history lessons, could cease being fairy tales of times and places distant and long forgotten, and assume sharp immediacy. I wanted to tell the Syriac people that our Church had come to them in consolation, because we are uniquely placed to understand their plight. For ours too, is a church of martyrs, of the persecuted and of the dispossessed. In all of the four ancient Patriarchates, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, the Church and the believers alike have faced and often still face persecution and harassment. In south-eastern Turkey, the remnants of the Syriac people, victims of the same genocide as our own, eke out an existence as precarious as that of our own dwindling minority in Constantinople.
In the week leading up to the most important Christian feast of all, I wanted to tell them that though the mainstream media and governments that caused the humanitarian disaster that is Iraq in the first place and which have overseen the mass fleeing of half a million Christians from that country and their daily murder, simply for being different, may have forgotten or disregarded their plight, we do not, and nor will we ever do so. Our own history is replete with such examples, whether these be the hanging of Patriarch Gregory V in reprisal for the Greek Revolution of 1821, the lynching of ethnomartyr Metropolitan Chrysostomos of Smyrna in 1923, the murder of priests and burning of churches during the 1955 Istanbul pogrom and the continued desecration of graves and churches in occupied Cyprus, today. Indeed, it is probably as a result of such harrowing experiences, that the Greek people as a whole, hold progressive views about the need for peace and tolerance in a troubled world, and the co-operation and brotherhood between nations. It is probably also the reason why Greeks, whether they really believe in them or understand them or not, hold on, so steadfastly and zealously to their traditions.
The plight of Christians in Iraq does not just concern Greeks for historical or moral reasons. As recently as January of this year, the Greek Orthodox Church of St George in Saha Al Taharriyat was bombed by Islamic fundamentalists. Across the border, in Jordan, Greek Orthodox clerics such as Father Makarios Mavrogiannakis, are desperately trying to accommodate the thousands of Christian refugees streaming into that country, each of them bearing their own tale of woe, their own story of horror.
Such stories are not unfamiliar to me. In 2006, my wife’s first cousin, a manager of an American-run oil refinery in Iraq, began to be harassed at work, simply for being Christian. Anonymous people began to call him, demanding that he award contracts to various parties and threatening him with death if he did not do so. His subordinates refused to listen to him, citing as a reason, that they would not be told what to do by a Christian. Finally, when the threats turned more towards his wife and children, he decided to flee the country. As a result, his eldest son, a computer engineering student, was deliberately chosen as the target of a bombing, as he was buying a suit for his graduation, in Baghdad. As he lay bleeding on the pavement, his stomach ripped open, unidentified men hurled his body in a car and drove off, only to dump it a few kilometres away. Eventually, he was found by passers by and taken to hospital, where, upon it being established that he was a Christian, he was allowed to bleed to death. He was just twenty-one years old. Despite such blatant persecution, and the valiant attempts of the Federal Member of Caldwell, Maria Vamvakinou to highlight this and other similar tragedies in Parliament on 13 August 2007, the family’s application to migrate to Australia as refugees was refused twice, with no reason being provided by the Department of Immigration. Evidently, the powers that combat the Axis of Evil do not want evidence of their policy failures existing under their very noses.
As various representatives of the Eastern churches expressed anger at the manner in which the powers that have manifestly failed, in their imposition of ‘democracy,’ to protect the indigenous Christian minority of Iraq, I considered how post-modern concepts of pluralism and ill-conceived notions of equality could mitigate against the relief of the oppressed in more comfortable societies. For example, the European Union's Slovenian presidency has only just a few weeks ago, rejected a German proposal to offer preferential treatment to Christian refugees from Iraq, insisting that asylum decisions could not be based on religion.
“I think the right of asylum should be provided without consideration of religion or race,” said Slovenian Interior Minsiter Dragutin Mate upon his arrival at a meeting of his EU counterparts in Luxembourg on 18 April. “It seems to me to be difficult to operate in this sense of preferential treatment.” This comment had come after German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble had been given the green light from the country's 16 top state security officials to start an EU initiative for the acceptance of Iraqi Christians as refugees at the meeting in Luxembourg. No details of Schaeuble's plans were made public, nor was it clear how many refugees Germany would accept, although German press reports have said that the conservatives' plan would allow for for 30,000 Iraqi Christians to be sheltered in the country. The Social Democrats, German Chancellor Angela Merke’'s partners in her ruling coalition had also given their backing to the proposal, though they did feel uncomfortable with the decision to focus on Christians.
How facilely the West washes its hands from the fate of strategically insignificant peoples. The Christians of the Mesopotamian region have endured persecution for their faith ever since it was introduced to them by the apostle Thaddeus, shortly after the resurrection of Christ. Having to face first the Zoroastrian mania of the fanatical Sassanid Persians and then the fury of the Islamic hordes from the south, these people have held steadfastly to their faith and their traditions, despite being considered second class citizens and even as sub-humans for millenia. In doing so, they have never lost their unshakeable belief that their western ‘brethren’ are concerned for their welfare and will eventually intercede on their behalf. The flipside of this deeply held conviction is that just as the Persians held the Christians of Iraq accountable for twists and turns of policy of the Byzantine Empire, operating under presumption that as Christians, they would be more loyal to Byzantium than to Persia, to the muslims of Iraq, the indigenous Christians are seen as westerners and therefore answerable to their muslim co-habitants for the West’s misdemeanours. They are in fact, hostages.
And herein lies the greatest tragedy. Hostages are only of any value when they can be ransomed or used as a bargaining chip by their captors against those who would redeem them. What then is the fate of the worthless hostage? His right to an existence is forfeit. Reviled as a traitor and an alien in the land of his forefathers, dismissed as an irrelevancy by those he looks to for protection, he remains a captive in a lawless country, subject to the whims and passing fury of every person who would assert superiority over him and do violence to his person simply because of his adherence to an unwanted religion, or he flees, to the diminishing number of countries that will still accept him, for to them he is no Christian, but simply yet another of those troublesome Middle Easterners. And it is then that he realises that his belief in Christianity, or the viruousness of the West has been nothing more than smoke and shadow and he despairs.
The Christians of Iraq, the vast majority of whom are of Assyiran ethnicity, have no glorious ruins or remains to inspire something akin to the philhellenism that played such a great role in our national emancipation. The British and the Germans have already taken the best archaelogical finds for their museums and all that they left behind has been looted from the Baghdad Museum after the Americans failed to secure it. As an interesting aside, it should be noted that the curator of the Baghdad Museum, Donny George Youkhana, a Christian Assyrian fled the country on 27 August 2006, after pressure to follow a radical Islamic agenda in the preservation of Iraqi antiquities made his position impossible. In other words, he was asked to deny the Assyrian heritage of Iraq. We on the other hand can be proud of Greek-American Colonel, Manhattan Assistant District Attorney and National Humanities Medal recipient Matthew Bogdanos who at his own Indiana Jones-style initiative, led the investigation into the looting of the Baghdad Museum and who by 2007, was responsible for recovering over 6,000 stolen antiquities. This, is Hellenism at its very best. Just don’t call him Junior. And yes, he hates snakes.
On Great and Holy Thursday, as I looked upon my priest processing the crucified Christ around St Dimitrios Church in Moonee Ponds, I was reminded of just how precarious the concept of tolerance can be, even in the most ‘civilised’ of countries. For as the bells tolled dolorously, the congregation was startled by wild thumping and banging noises. The next door neighbour, incensed that a bunch of wogs would be worshipping Christ at the infernal hour of nine o’clock in the evening had decided that he would teach us all a lesson by disrupting the service at its most poignant moment. In the post-Cold War triumph of capitalism, there seems little point to masquerade moral superiority. There are no longer oppressed peoples or values to uphold, only profits and strategic gains to be made. Such a world, which feeds its citizens with bread and circuses as it compells them to give up their basic freedoms and solidarity with the rest of humanity, has no need of minorities or their quaint customs to protect. And it would be no small wonder if in the modern day, Lazarus, summoned by Christ to exit his tomb, would refuse to do so, and stay put.


First published in NKEE on 5 May 2008