The Columbus School of Law’s Interdisciplinary Program on Law and Religion led a group of American religious leaders on an historic, week-long fact-finding trip to the Kurdish region of Iraq, Nov. 4–10, 2012.
Headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former Archbishop of Washington, D.C., the group met with Christian leaders and parishioners throughout Iraqi Kurdistan to assess the state of the Christian community in the region and to learn about its efforts to absorb and adjust to a rapidly growing non-Christian population.
The thriving Christian community in Iraqi Kurdistan is one of the oldest in the world and one of most diverse in the Middle East.
“The Iraqi Kurdistan Region, an autonomous region within Iraq, embraced the American ideals of democracy, equality, and freedom. Theirs is the success story that we don't hear about,” said Rich Gallena (at left, with Cardinal McCarrick), a third-year law student who accompanied the delegation as a research assistant for Professor Robert Destro, founder and director of the Law and Religion Program.
“Many of our meetings began with government officials thanking us for the great sacrifice our country has made,” Gallena continued. “And it's true. America paid a very steep price for toppling Saddam, and I think the American people deserve to know that our efforts haven't been in vain.” (The deceased dictator's former home sits on the hilltop at left).
In recent years Iraq’s Christian region has received thousands of Muslim migrants from elsewhere in the country, and they now constitute a significant minority in the large Christian center of Ankawa near Erbil.
The delegation met with Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda, as well as with regional officials, members of Parliament and others focused on religious freedom issues.
Accompanying Cardinal McCarrick were the Most Rev. Vicken Aykazian, Armenian Orthodox Church of America; Dr. James A. Kowalski, Dean, The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine; and A. Larry Ross, a well-known advisor to the leadership of the Evangelical community in the U.S.
The visit by the American religious leaders opened eyes on both sides.
“Even though many of the figures we met were of different religions, there was recognition and respect shared amongst those who follow and adhere to a belief in a higher being,” said Gallena.
The U.S. visitors spent a significant amount of time traveling to schools and churches, absorbing as much as they could about Iraq’s Christian culture.
Although Christianity came to Iraq long before Islam, Iraq is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Though not in danger of extinction demographically, Iraq’s Christian population has at times felt the sting of minority status.
The Iraqi hosts welcomed their brethren’s willingness to listen, learn, and help, said Gallena.
“Once you don the official auspices of a government, people look at you differently, and given our involvement in the region, there's a level of distrust. The independent nature of our delegation allowed us to engage those we met on an honest, common level,” he said.
The group will discuss its findings at a conference on December 5, titled “The Status of Christian Communities in Iraqi Kurdistan: Challenges and Opportunities,” co-sponsored by the Interdisciplinary Program in Law & Religion, to be held at the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C.