On the feast of the Good Shepherd, Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman, O.C.D., Archbishop of Baghdad, offered insight on his unique role as the shepherd of the Roman Catholic flock in war-torn Iraq during his recent visit to the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.
“Without shepherds, the sheep become scattered,” Archbishop Sleiman said. “We have to take care of our people. We are weak. We have fear in difficult situations. We have to be able to deliver our flock from fear.”
While at Thomas More College, Iraq’s archbishop installed a statue of the Infant of Prague in the chapel, offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and attended a lunchtime reception with Thomas More students, faculty, staff, alumni, local clergy, nuns, and friends of the College. Sunday’s events attracted nearly 150 people.
In his homily, Archbishop Sleiman said a good shepherd both protects and encourages his flock. Despite the challenges that brings, given the hostile situation in Iraq today, we still must remain confident and strong.
“I think fear is an enemy. If you let fear dominate you, you don’t do anything,” he said. “It’s important to have more faith and more trust in God. If you exercise fear, you can’t do things. You are dead.”
Later, during a speech to those gathered at the College, Archbishop Sleiman noted the important mission of Catholic colleges and universities, especially given the hostility found in parts of human culture today.
“Our Holy Father Benedict is all the time insisting on the link between reason and faith. The most important mission of a college or university is to deepen the link, to protect it, and make it more abundant,” Archbishop Sleiman said. “In the Middle East, our deep problem is a lack of reason. We don’t have reason with faith. Maybe that can explain why the fundamentalism is very dangerous.”
“When you associate God with your fundamentalism, you are destroying the idea of God. You are making God like a soldier, like a leader of an army, when God is love, mercy, and salvation.”
By contrast, he said, in Europe there is much reason but little faith.
While he acknowledged that reason is a necessary part of man’s existence, he said that reason must be balanced with faith.
“Our great saints were marvelous because they were very reasonable, very realistic, but at the same time, they were faithful. I hope your college will deepen the link between faith and reason in this world.”
Thomas More College President William Fahey expressed gratitude on behalf of the entire College community for the archbishop’s visit.
“Archbishop Sleiman is proof that there is no division between the contemplative life and the life of service,” Fahey said. “We are grateful the archbishop visited our small campus in Merrimack, New Hampshire.”
In a meeting with Thomas More College officials and members of the media, Archbishop Sleiman, who was born in Lebanon and speaks Arabic as his first language, detailed the extent of the pain and suffering in Iraq. He pointed out that while Christians constitute a minority in the primarily Muslim nation, the pain and suffering has been universal.
“All Iraqis are suffering from this disturbing situation,” he said. “Most of us appreciate the last few months because violence has decreased very, very deeply.”
“We are all waiting for political solutions for Iraq,” he added.
In recent history, there has been a mass exodus of Catholics from the country. He noted that before the most recent war in the beginning of this decade, there were about 1 million Catholics there, but the most recent census reported that the Catholic population decreased by 50 percent.
However, Archbishop Sleiman cautioned that his figures are merely estimates.
“Many Catholics were not counted in the last census,” the archbishop noted.
Religious persecutions in recent history, which have gone underreported and under-investigated, have taken both visible and invisible forms.
Numerous churches have been bombed recently, which has resulted in fewer Catholics going to Mass. While a police force is designated to protect churches, Archbishop Sleiman noted that they only protect against “normal criminality” and not terrorist attacks.
“You have people who are afraid to go to Mass every Sunday,” Archbishop Sleiman said. “It takes a degree of courage to go to Church.”
Further, priests are often kidnapped, and freed only when his church pays ransom.
Catholics have left the country under the threat of forced conversion.
“You either become a Muslim or you go,” he said. “If you leave, you take nothing with you.”
“It’s a very hidden but a real persecution,” he added.
While Sadaam Hussein’s regime encouraged Iraqis to follow the Islamic religion more than any other faith, there was more public order in the country prior to the dictator’s fall from power a few years ago. Since that time, Archbishop Sleiman said, religious discrimination has been on the rise.
Archbishop Sleiman noted how difficult it is for him to encourage vocations because of the hostile situation in Iraq, which has led to mass migrations.
“Many people like to be priests in Cleveland and Detroit – not in Baghdad,” he said.
When asked what the United States’ role in Iraqi affairs should be, he would not comment on America’s entry into Iraq or her proposed withdrawal. Instead, he said that America should look to help in other ways.
“It’s important to bring peace by humanitarian and social relations,” Archbishop Sleiman said.
He complimented the charitable work of Catholic Relief Services in the area.
He encouraged Americans to “help people evolve in culture and in their minds. The deepest problem in Iraq is a cultural problem.
After his visit at Thomas More College, Archbishop Sleiman traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, members of the State Department, key Congressional leaders, and attend the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.