ESLÖV, Sweden — After enduring war and suffering in Iraq, Chaldean Catholics abroad prefer to look ahead to a brighter future in their adopted countries rather than return to their native land, said Bishop Saad Sirop Hanna, the apostolic visitor for Chaldeans in Europe.
Speaking with Catholic News Service Nov. 3 via Zoom from his office in the northern Swedish city of Södertälje, Hanna said that while he respects and understands the calls made by Pope Francis and Cardinal Louis Sako of Baghdad, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch, many Iraqi Christians who have fled their homes have put down roots in Europe and should be cared for where they are now.
“From my personal experience and pastoral experience here in Sweden, and in other countries, I haven’t seen any Chaldean who wants to go back to Iraq,” Hanna said.
“If you take it from the point of view of numbers, 70% of the Chaldean community are outside of Iraq now and just 30% are inside Iraq. So, the majority are outside. We have to accept this fact and try to deal with it carefully and try to build on it,” he said.
Appointed in 2016 as the head of the Chaldean community in Europe, Hanna knows firsthand the suffering of war, violence and persecution many Iraqi Christians faced over several decades.
In 2006, then-Father Hanna was abducted by unknown extremists while returning from Mass. His kidnapping prompted appeals from many around the world, including Pope Benedict XVI. After enduring 27 days of threats and torture, he was released.
Looking back at his harrowing experience, Hanna told CNS that his kidnapping gave him the opportunity “to understand that life is too short; we have to live it completely in dedication to the goodness that we have inside us and in others and not let evil overcome the possibility of finding ways that we can live in peace, in love and in hope with others.”
Hanna said there are roughly 100,000 Chaldean Catholics in Europe, an estimated 30,000 of whom live in Sweden, making it the largest Chaldean community on the continent.
One of the many challenges facing Iraqi Christians in Europe, he said, is finding a way to balance the values instilled in their community with the more secularized values of Western culture.
“It’s very difficult, especially the dialogue between the old generations and the new generations who are born here. They feel completely westernized and completely different from us,” he said. “This is actually one of the biggest challenges that families are facing here in the West.”
Hanna said another challenge was the lack of “an independent identity as a church” in Sweden and in Europe.
The Chaldean community, he explained, is “considered as a mission, so we have to do everything through” local dioceses.
However, “at the end of the day, we need some independence so that we can manage our things in a (certain) way because we understand our people, we know how to reach them, we know how to dialogue with them, we know how to bring them to the church, we know the history that they lived, we know the problems that they had, we know the challenges that they faced in Iraq,” he said.
Hanna told CNS that while it is important for the Catholic Church to focus efforts on preserving the remaining Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, he also believes the church should “give a lot of attention” to Iraqi Catholics abroad, especially by providing priests who can serve the growing community.
Iraqi Christians in the diaspora, he said, are often “forgotten.”
“We have to give more attention to the Chaldeans” living outside of Iraq, he said. “Many of them are very happy to be here in these countries. They are well respected, taken care of in different ways and they have the future in front of them open, and they want to live here. They will not go back to Iraq. I’m sure of that.”