by Rayan Atto. Parish priest of the Chaldean community of Gothenburg
(Interview by Luca Attanasio)
“In the land of Abraham we have never spent even an entire century in peace. We hope to usher in a new era, and that the Pope’s visit is the beginning.” Thus we begin–with a cry that aspires to hope but chokes at the thought of the tormented history of Iraq–our chat with Father Rayan Atto, a Chaldean priest born and raised in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, who has served as the parish priest of the Chaldean community of Gothenburg, Sweden since 2018. Unable to reach his homeland on the occasion of the Pope’s visit due to COVID-related impediments, Father Rayan Atto followed every minute of the historic journey from thousands of kilometers away. Confronti Weekly presents his reflections about the moment in Iraq and the situation of Christians, and he shares his hopes for the future.
What were the expectations for the pope’s trip to Iraq?
To be honest, until the very last moment I feared that the trip would not take place. For the Iraqis the cancelled trip of John Paul II for the opening of the Holy Year of 2000 was a big disappointment: it was scheduled for December 1999, everything was ready, but at the last minute it fell apart. And this time too, up to ten days earlier, there was an air of pessimism, because it is always difficult to come to Iraq. Instead, he made the trip and planted a precious seed for us. It was planted carefully and left to the people to cultivate now that the Pope is gone. “I come as a penitent pilgrim,” he said before leaving, and he presented himself as a humble visitor who would only be with us a short time and then leave again. Of course it will not be easy to continue to grow the seed he has planted; just think of the history of Iraq and all that has happened here, the Persian empire, the Sassanid empire, then the Arabs, the Mongols and then wars upon wars and lots of diversity of viewpoints. And these differences can be insurmountable obstacles for us. The Pope tried to find points of commonality; he wanted all faiths to gather under one tent to fix the house of Abraham, which is in Ur of the Chaldeans [today it is called Tell Al-Muqayyar]. Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, Yazidi—they should really come together to reflect on how to start again. It is as if he had asked us to push a kind of “reset button,” like you would find on the computer, and to give ourselves new life opportunities. The centuries teach us that those who claim power instead of working to unite people are building a crooked mosaic with lopsided pieces. Perhaps it was we who invented the motto “divide and conquer,” not the Romans.
Iraq has long endured a profound political crisis, which began in the autumn of 2019 in what was dubbed the Iraqi Spring, a wave of major protests against the policies of then Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. On 9 April, the new government of former intelligence chief Mustafa al Kadhimi turned one year old. How is the situation today? And what role did the Pope’s visit play?
The political climate in Iraq is more divided now than after the fall of Saddam Hussein. There have been many governments, but none have managed to implement the changes that everyone hopes for, also because of the numerous wars and the state of permanent tension that we have experienced on so many occasions. The Pope’s trip takes place at a time of general instability and offers some respite. He was in agreement with everyone, and nobody raised any criticism. Since October, when the Pope’s visit began to be talked about, all the political and social formations were actually very favorable. I believe it was precisely the Pope’s visit that re-triggered a dialogue between the parties that previously did not even speak to each other. The pope’s trip has illuminated positive inspirations for our tormented country, it has brought Iraq back to the center of the world but not for war, attacks, violence, or oil–at least not only for that. Let’s take the case of Ur of Chaldeans, a very important place for the whole of humanity, regardless of faith and religion, with 7,000 years of history. I am sure that the world ignored this place, or at least did not know of its existence. But now, thanks to the Pope’s visit, Ur is back in conversation and people can know this place and see the depth of this country and how rich it is in art and culture. The history of Iraq is far more important than wars and oil.
What was the most powerful message that the Pope’s trip left, beyond words?
I believe that the Pope told the government, “Go back to being brothers or at least stop tearing yourselves apart; you must avoid further conflicts with all of your collective effort.” Whatever happens, they must say no to wars. This is more important than money and is a message that the Church itself must commit to and spread. When the Pope speaks of the diseases of Iraq he means, among others, the deification of money. The Church, just like society, is not exempt. In the midst of all this conflict, Christians fled from Iraq en masse or died. Our numbers, including all the other churches, are small, in the order of a few tens of thousands. I hope that the Pope’s visit will be fruitful for Christians–that they come out of this visit more united and that they return to playing an important role for society, not just to increase their property holdings. I think our patriarch, Cardinal Sako, is doing well. After the visit, he met with politicians and publicly declared the importance of the event. And I believe that an early fruit of the Pope’s visit was the renunciation of the decision–advocated by some of the most radical Islamic political movements–to form the Supreme Court with religious members, similar to an Islamic state. There was a long debate in parliament about this in the previous months, but after the pope’s visit, the patriarch, supported by many imams, as well as most of the public, obtained a constitution of the secular court. The past of our beloved country does not invite much hope. But, from today, I think we can say that a small light has been sparked.