Iraq’s first new church since the 2003 US-led invasion opened in a poor Christian neighborhood of the northern city of Kirkuk, the region’s Chaldean archbishop told AFP.
The inauguration of Mar Bulos (Saint Paul’s) church in the multi-ethnic and multi-religious city comes despite the sharp fall in the number of Christians in Iraq because of attacks and threats by Al Qaeda.
In an opening ceremony lst Thursday, Louis Sako, the Chaldean Archbishop of the northern province of Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk (also the name of the provincial capital) said that Christians and Muslims “need each other.”
“We need each other, we cannot isolate ourselves and live alone,” he told a congregation of about 300.
“Isolation is a slow death, so we have hope for a joint life as Christians and Muslims, to have a righteous country, and a city full of security, stability and dignity.”
“This is considered as the first new church in Iraq since 2003,” Archbishop Sako said.
The number of Iraqi Christians has dwindled to about 400,000 from an estimated figure of between 800,000 and 1.2 million before the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Most of them live in Baghdad, Kirkuk, the area surrounding the northern city of Mosul and parts of the autonomous Kurdistan region in the north of Iraq.
On October 31, a group of Al Qaeda commandos stormed a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad, with the ensuing siege killing 44 worshippers, two priests and seven Iraqi security force officers. It was the worst attack against Iraq’s Christian community since 2003, and countless members of the minority have since fled the country.
The new Kirkuk church serves a housing community of about 200 Christian families who fled to Kirkuk and nearby regions from other parts of the country, Archbishop Sako said.
The church and complex were built on land donated by the Iraqi government and with donations, including $10,000 by President Jalal Talabani.
He said it was a secure location with fewer instances of violence and was better protected because of its location near the facilities and housing complexes of the state-run North Oil Company.
In a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the Christian community, Sheikh Ahmed Muhammad Ameen, the Muslim Imam of Kirkuk, recited a prayer before the congregation, asking God for peace and security for the people of Kirkuk and the rest of Iraq.
The ceremony was also attended by several Arab and Kurdish officials.
Hassan Toran, the chief of Kirkuk’s provincial council, said that the local government “will support the Christians, financially and morally.
“Today is an example for forgiveness in this city, a message of peace to confirm the coexistance and fraternity of all the sects of Kirkuk,” he said.
Emad Yelda, an MP representing Iraq’s Assyrian Christians, said that the opening of the church was a message for Christians not to abandon Iraq, and a message to everyone not to target the Christians.
“Building the church today is a message for all countries and everyone who has an agenda: don’t target us and leave us (to) build houses of God,” he said.
Several members of the congregation said they had received homes in the complex after fleeing from other regions.
Saad Issa Rowi, a 55-year-old day-labourer, said: “I left Baghdad last year due to the security situation and decided to live in Kirkuk, because I have relatives and friends here.”
“Getting the land (for the housing complex) is like a gift from God, a gift to stay in Iraq, die here and be buried here.”