Fernando Cardinal FILONI (Edward Condon, trans.). The Church in Iraq. Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2017. pp. 216. $19.95 pb. ISBN-13: 9780813229652. Reviewed by Charles MERCIER, Milford, CT 06460.


            American Catholics unaware of the ancient history of Christians in Iraq and the uncertainty today of their surviving genocide should read Cardinal Fernando Filoni’s authoritative The Church in Iraq. Filoni, Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, was apostolic nuncio to Iraq and Jordan (2001-2006). In August 2014, after the fall of Mosul and the declaration of the Islamic State, Pope Francis appointed Filoni Personal Envoy to Iraq. His response to the experience was this book first published in Italian in June 2015.

            Cardinal Filoni’s account deals almost entirely with the past: 1900 years of complicated religious, cultural, political, ecclesiastic, and diplomatic history in 200 pages. Iraqi Christianity goes back, legendarily, to apostolic times. Filoni narrates Christians’ loss of civil rights with the coming of Islam, persecutions and massacres, and, very briefly and always from a Roman perspective, the varieties of Christianity in the region, that is, the schisms and heresies that defeated Christian unity more than distinction from Islam ever fostered it.

            As author of La chiesa nella terra di Abramo (2008) and 35 years a Vatican diplomat, Filoni emphasizes Roman efforts to evangelize and establish Latin dioceses in communion with Rome. We learn of 13th century Dominicans and 16th century Carmelites; Yohannan Sulaqa (~1510–1555), first Chaldean patriarch, martyred by Ottoman authorities at the invitation of the Nestorian Christian patriarch; the humanitarian efforts of archbishop of Baghdad and apostolic delegate to Iraq (1922-9), Dominican François Berré. American Jesuits found Baghdad College in 1932, which educated Muslims as Muslims, closed by the Baath regime in 1969.

            The Crusader period confirmed Christian divisions between East and West, though
Filoni reminds us of papal attentions in the East after the Councils of Florence (1445) and Trent (1563). Even so, Filoni endorses the view that Pius IX’s bull on Eastern churches Ecclesiam Christi (1853) “did not address the real underlying problem.” Was “the principle of unity in diversity” “limited to differences of language and rite or did it admit of a theological-ecclesiological pluralism?”

            Filoni’s treatment is lucid but necessarily schematic. Still essential as an introduction for English readers remains Suha Rassam’s Christianity in Iraq (2010), which from a less privileged, more personal perspective covers non-Roman Iraqi Christians as well (“the Church” of Filoni’s title is the Roman Catholic Church) and pauses to savor long-bitter cultural ironies such as how seventh century Iraqi and Syrian Christians initially welcomed Muslims as if liberators from the tyranny of Christian Byzantium.

            Filoni’s conclusion is grim: Iraq is currently “unlivable” and Iraqi Christians’ survival will depend on valid civic institutions at the moment inconceivable. The millennium of persecution that Filoni relates suggests that a complete exodus of remaining Christians may be their only salvation, as unthinkable as that is to many Christian bishops there.

            The next books, then, from lawyers, diplomats, and theologians on Iraqi Christianity need to start immediately solving the insoluble. American Catholics need to know, as principled basis for going forward, the answers to the central questions: is theocracy necessary to Islam? Can Islam assimilate the secular Enlightenment as Catholicism did? Or is the notion that “Islam still needs its enlightenment” itself a triumphalist Western falsehood? What constitutional arrangements are possible in Iraq, like independence for Kurdistan, which currently protects a last-ditch Christian community in the Ankawa suburb of its capital Erbil, such that the diverse affiliations are not merely legally reduced religious minorities under Sharia?

            On May 14, 1999 John Paul II, while receiving an Iraqi delegation in Rome, infamously “kissed the Qu’ran.” Canonization invites irrelevance and there are conservatives who say he would not have done it today. But if Filoni calls “fostering the universal value of human rights” the diplomatic basis for saving Iraqi Christians, that cannot exclude Muslims. Ultimately, are American Catholics to work to save Iraqi Christians as a response to their dignity as human persons, or to save our friends and eliminate our enemies?

            The Obama administration was slow to acknowledge the Christian genocide, as it did in March 2016. Yet a vote for the successor who professed support for Middle Eastern Christians has also supported an America-First foreign policy that means hatred in John Pauline terms (“the opposite of love is use”). Is the “clash of civilizations” the authentic model for saving Iraqi Christians or is it the application of the personalistic norm?

            Vatican diplomacy has in any event been irrelevant to American administrations. Filoni, representing the views of John Paul, opposed the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the morally dubious notion of “preemptive war.” Yet, “not even the stern warning of the saint-pope could deter President Bush from his purpose.” In exchange for complicity with the regime, Iraqi Christians actually had some security under Saddam Hussein. It is since the invasion destabilized the country that Iraqi Christianity has lost perhaps 80% of its Christian population (down to 300,000).

            For American Catholics grieved by the desperate circumstances of Iraqi Christians, historical scholarship seems less helpful just now than a principled reckoning with pressing theological and political questions. If they are insoluble, American Catholics need to know. If there are answers, we need them immediately.