Prayers4Peace: In Conversation with Father Emanuel in Iraq

In Conversation with Father Emanuel in Iraq*

By Embrace the Middle East

*Piece originally published on Embrace the Middle East’s Blog

In the second installment of our ‘Conversations with Middle East Christians’ webinars, in partnership with our friends at Churches for Middle East Peace, Rev Colin Chapman speaks with Archimandrite Abuna Emanuel Youkana. ‘Father Emanuel’ is a leader of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Director of CAPNI, an Iraqi Christian NGO. He is based in Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Father Emanuel opens by acknowledging that for many decades Iraq was making the news. Today, it does not feature so prominently in western media, but he hopes that his country is still in the minds and prayers of Christians around the world. He reminds listeners that Iraq is part of the biblical lands – it was the homeland of Abraham, and the prophets Jonah and Daniel walked there too. 

Today, Christians make up just 0.6% of the Iraqi population, compared to 3% before the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing exodus of many people. Father Emanuel is passionate about shining a light on the practical and vital role of Christians in the land, who can trace their lineage back 2,000 years.

Rev Colin Chapman: Could you start by giving us a general picture of the political and economic situation in Iraq?

Father Emanuel: To set the scene for today, we need to go back to 2003, when the Sadam regime was toppled and the state completely collapsed. By state collapse, I’m referring to the government, the military, security, public services – everything! For a couple of years, we had a vacuum of power. Now, we have an unstable political system. 

We have three main sectarian groups: Shi’as, Sunnis and Kurds. Sadly, there are many clashes and we often see violence. 

There is a lack of economic development and widespread unemployment. Ordinary Iraqi families, whoever they are, they don’t feel there is stability – but the challenge we face as minorities is greater. Minorities don’t have political influence and are not supported by paramilitaries or external actors.

Of course, Kurdistan [where most Christians are now to be found] is very different to the rest of Iraq. Christians have more freedom in Kurdistan than other parts of Iraq, but there are still many challenges. Many of our Christian community are displaced and unable to integrate – for example, it is extremely difficult for non-Kurdish-speaking Christians in this region.

Rev Colin Chapman: Can you paint a picture of the different Christian denominations in Iraq, and how they work together? 

Father Emanuel: Many people in the west mistakenly think that Christians in Iraq are newly evangelised and a new church. Actually, Christianity in Iraq is 2000 years old. The Church of the East and the Syriac Orthodox Church go back two millennia, and in the last three or four centuries, more denominations have sprung up. 

Now we have Orthodox families – Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and a small community of Melkite Orthodox. We also have the Catholic family. Within this family, we have the Chaldean Catholics, which is composed of about two-thirds of Iraqi Christians. The Chaldeans were once part of our church (the Church of the East) but, three centuries ago, they united with the Roman Catholic Church. There are also Syriac Catholics, Armenian Catholics and a small community of Latins. And then we have the Church of the East family, which is the church I belong to, and also the Ancient Church of the East, which separated from the Church of the East in 1963. Over the last 120 years, Protestant churches have sprung up too.

Iraq has a rich diversity of Christians and churches, but unfortunately we don’t yet have an ecumenical platform that brings different Christians together. This weakens us because it means we don’t speak with one voice. 

Rev Colin Chapman: Can you tell us a little about the Iraqi Christian diaspora?

Father Emanuel: The diaspora is only a diaspora as long as it has a homeland. If the roots of the tree are dead, then the tree will fall. To use this metaphor, our tree is weak – but we are still the root of the diaspora.

The Iraqi Christian diaspora covers the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. It is much stronger than the homeland in terms of its church, institutions, economy and opportunities. However, we need the diaspora to do more in terms of investing their resources (whether academic or financial) to support their sisters and brothers in Iraq. We particularly need their help with advocacy and being a voice for the voiceless.

Rev Colin Chapman: Do you have good relationships with the central government in Baghdad?

Father Emanuel: We always have nice words and statements from the government, but unfortunately in many cases these statements are not put into practice. For example, under Article 26 of the National Identity Card Law, if one parent is a Muslim, all children are automatically registered as Muslim and it is impossible to change this even if once they reach the age of eighteen they want to, because converts from Islam to other religions cannot change their religion on their identity cards. We are lobbying the government to change this law in order to grant equal rights to everyone, but there have been no changes yet. 

Another example is the education curriculum. Currently, there is not one single paragraph that mentions Christians and churches in Iraq, despite our 2000-year history. This is something else we are trying to change.

Rev Colin Chapman: Tell us about the work of CAPNI and how you support Christians.

Father Emanuel: CAPNI was founded in 1992 after the mass exodus of people due to the Gulf War in 1991. The Kurdistan Region of Iraq was declared a safe haven under international protection, and those who had been displaced had the opportunity to return to the region. Our starting point was helping people rebuild demolished villages. We don’t exclusively work with Christians – we work with other vulnerable minority communities, including Yezidis. 

Our motto is ‘to keep hope alive’. Hope is not just an emotional word that makes for a nice Sunday sermon. We try to give hope in practice on a Monday morning – and help people see they have a future in their homeland. 

Practically speaking, CAPNI is active in four fields. First, the Eastern Christianity sector, which builds the capacity of the native church in terms of courses and publishing. We also focus on promoting the Syriac language because of its 2000-year history of liturgy and literature.

Second, the community development sector. Here, we provide young people with vocational training and give them loans to start their own businesses. We also support communities to improve public services, such as rehabilitating irrigation tunnels or restoring water systems. 

Third is health. We work to promote health awareness and provide basic treatments and medication for chronic illnesses. We operate a mobile clinic to reach remote villages. 

Finally, we focus on advocacy. We advocate for coexistence and the rights of minorities. This is something that takes a very long time and we are in it for the long haul.

Rev Colin Chapman: How can Christians outside Iraq support you?

Father Emanuel: First of all, thank you. In many cases, we might be helpless but we are never hopeless. We need Christians and churches in other countries to be our voice – with their connections and in their communities, as well as lobbying their governments on our behalf. We want to see equality in Iraq and Western countries can help with this. When human rights are breached, something needs to be said and done. 

Of course, we also need prayer – we should never undermine the power of prayer. And we have material needs too, in terms of supporting our projects and our people. 

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

*Piece originally published on Embrace the Middle East’s Blog

The above post is a condensed version of the second session of our summer series, “Conversations with Middle East Christians”, from July 2023. Watch the full session above.

Any views or opinions contained herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP).

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