Basra, Iraq -- The mission of the Church is to "proclaim the kingdom of God" by strengthening human values and morals "through the education of new generations", in particular "in an area like ours where there is a high percentage of poverty and illiteracy," says Msgr. Alhava Habib Jajou, Chaldean Archbishop of Basra, in southern Iraq. He tells AsiaNews that days ago the Ministry of Education granted the local church permission to build a Christian primary school. An exceptional event, given that it is the first Christian educational institution to be granted a permit since the 1970s. Preparatory work for took a year and a half and the opening is scheduled for September 2018.
The school will be built in the parish of Our Lady of the Annunciation in Tuwaisah. It will employ six teachers full time and will adopt curricula provided by the Iraqi Ministry of Education. It will also provide the opportunity to learn a third language beyond Arabic and English: Chaldean Aramaic. Msgr. Habib points out that it was realized "thanks to the support of the Fraternity in Iraq (Paris)", while teachers "come from three different groups: Christian (of various denominations), Muslims and Mandaeans."
The Archbishop continues: "Our institution will be open to all groups, even though there will be mostly Muslims. We believe in the culture of diversity. Here, Christians date back to the second century, even before the Mandaeans, but in the last few decades they have abandoned the south in huge numbers and chosen, for many reasons, to migrate. That is why we have decided to invest all of our efforts in helping the [local Christian] community. "
As a result of the "critical" situation that emerged after the US invasion in 2003, one of the many challenges is "violations of the dignity of children," the Archbishop says. Since the 18th century, the Basra's Christians have opened nine elementary and middle schools, but since 1974 the institutes have been nationalized. "Today," he continues, "we have decided to open the doors of hope, create employment for adults, and improve relations with Muslim families."
The new elementary school will join the network of six other structures already present and managed by the Dominican Sisters, the Evangelical and the Chaldean Church: these include three kindergartens and three nursery schools.
At one time Basra's Christians were a significant part of the city, many were exponents of the business class. However, in recent years the community has been decimated as is the case throughout the country, although the south of Iraq has not witnessed the same level of persecution as Mosul, Baghdad, Kirkuk, or Nineveh.
That said, Basra was home to the first victim of the law prohibiting the sale, import and production of alcohol, voted just over a year ago by Parliament. At the end of October 2016 a group of armed men killed the Syrian-Catholic businessman Nazar Elias Jaji Al Kas Putrus, owner of a liquor store.
"Since 2003 - the prelate recalls - at least 50 faithful in our diocese have been killed by Islamic extremists because they worked for the coalition forces (Americans, British or other armies) or because they sold alcohol." Msgr Habib is the only bishop within a vast territory, so "encouraging my people to face the challenges is one of my priorities, as well as being a kind of Christian ambassador to the Muslims."
According to recent estimates today little more than 10% of the original population remain in the area, a few hundred of the original three thousand Christian families. In September 2015, the local community celebrated the inauguration of the first Christian museum in southern Iraq. Inside, there are over 200 religious artefacts, documents, liturgical objects, photographs, clothes and furniture, some of which date back to the 17th century.
The Archbishop concludes: "We opened it to protect and preserve the historic heritage, which was used in the Basra churches for the past three centuries." Our priorities, are pastoral care, education, support for the poor, and helping new generations find employment."