The man who has become the world’s youngest Catholic archbishop has spoken of his “hopes and confidence” as he takes up his role as shepherd to some of Iraq’s most persecuted Christians.
At barely 42, Amil Shamaaoun Nona has been ordained Archbishop of Mosul in northern Iraq, replacing Paulos Faraj Rahho, who was kidnapped outside his cathedral nearly two years ago, dying in captivity 10 days later.
In a statement to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, the new archbishop gave his response to the ongoing series of killings, abductions and bomb blasts aimed at churches and other Christian centers across the city.
Archbishop Nona, who until his appointment was a priest of nearby Alqosh Diocese, wrote, “My new mission is to provide hope and confidence to the Christians in Mosul, making them aware of the presence of a father and a minister beside them in their present plight.”
The archbishop, who was installed in his cathedral at a ceremony on Friday, Jan. 22nd, about two weeks after his episcopal ordination, gave a realistic assessment of the huge challenges facing the region’s Christians.
He stated that, since the upsurge of anti-Christian violence and intimidation in 2003, the Chaldean-rite Catholic community in Mosul city has dwindled by two-thirds and is now down to as few as 5,000 people.
Archbishop Nona warned that a decline in numbers threatens to force Christianity in Mosul into obscurity. He wrote: “When all the wealthy people who own businesses, investments and factories leave the city, those who remain will have an effect that is negligible.”
Mosul, on the River Tigris and linked to the Biblical Nineveh, is seen as the historical heartland of Christianity in Iraq. Traditionally, it has been the city boasting the largest number of faithful in the country.
But, with growing evidence of Al Qaeda and other extremist activity in the region, Christians have fled in response to increasing victimization, a problem compounded by their being labeled as easy targets in clashes between Kurds and Arabs in the city.
In his message to ACN, Archbishop Nona went on to plead for Christians to be left in peace and kept out of the political struggle for control of the region.
In an oblique reference to the upcoming general elections in March, he wrote, “We need to carry our cause as Christians to the influential countries so as to exert pressure on the conflicting political powers in Iraq not to use us to gain some political benefits. That is what is happening now.”
Amid reports that attacking Christians is seen by radical groups as a ploy to attract international attention, he added, “What is required is an international pressure on the strong and influential parties in Iraq to keep us away from their struggle for power.”
A wave of violence in early autumn, 2008, forced about half of Mosul’s Christian community to leave the city. Many returned, but of those a large number have left as sporadic violence continues.
Pointing out the threats to Christians across the city, Archbishop Nona stressed that police protection was now in place at every church and priests’ house.
His comments come after a surge of violence against Christians in Mosul, especially over Christmas.
A number of kidnappings and killings took place climaxing on the day before Christmas Eve when a bomb blast damaged the city’s St. Thomas’s Church (Mar Toma), which dates back 1,200 years. Two people were killed and five were injured.
In response to the rise in anti-Christian violence, Latin-rite Archbishop Jean Sleiman of Baghdad, spoke out against what he called a “media silence” on persecution against the Church in Iraq.
In an interview with SIR news agency given on Monday, Jan. 25th, amid reports of two Catholic men being killed in Mosul at the weekend, Archbishop Sleiman said, “Let us break the wall of silence that surrounds the killing of Christians in Mosul and in Iraq.”
“Christians are killed in Mosul, while the State does nothing. The forces of order serving in the places of the attacks and killings don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak.”
Against this backdrop, Archbishop Nona underlined in his message to ACN that the Church was for many Christians in Mosul the only source of hope.
He wrote: “The only thing that the faithful are still adhering to is the Church. For this reason, the Church, represented in the person of the bishop, has to care for its followers and help them feel secure through its presence in them and among them.”
Archbishop Nona was born in November, 1967, in Alqosh, an ancient Christian village in the Nineveh plain outside Mosul, where he ministered as a priest after his ordination in January, 1991, at the age of 23.
A number of pastoral projects he has worked on in the area received funding from Aid to the Church in Need – most notably youth work and funds to build a kindergarten.
As well as becoming the youngest Catholic archbishop, according to www.catholic-hierarchy.org, he is also the ninth youngest Catholic bishop in the world (the youngest being only 39).