Easter prayer of Iraq’s embattled Christians: ‘give us back our land’

Assyrian Christians in the Nineveh Plains are forming an army to fight for their ancient community against Isis invaders

This article was first published in the Times on 4 April 2015.

As Christians around the world celebrate the most important feast in their liturgical calendar tomorrow and Pope Francis delivers his message of peace, Christian soldiers will be preparing to fight Isis.

In the remaining Christian-held territory in the Ninevah Plains in northern Iraq, many of the newly trained Christian militiamen are volunteers who have arrived to fight for their brethren and try to avoid a repeat of the night of August 6 when 125,000 Christians fled their homes as Islamic State stood poised to invade. That evening, a Kurdish commander warned Christian leaders that his forces were retreating. By morning whole cities and towns, including Bakhdida and Bartella, had been abandoned and Christians evacuated into Kurdish territories in Iraq such as Ankawa, an Assyrian Christian suburb of the city of Arbil, and the city of Dohuk, where there is also a big Assyrian population.

Staying in their homes would have entailed either converting to Islam, paying extortion money or being murdered. In the Isis-controlled city of Mosul, some 30 miles away, many Christians had already fled in June 2014 after Isis took over. Churches were burnt, statues destroyed, and the Arabic letter for “N” (“Nazarene”) was daubed on the doors of Christian properties.

In the past decade Iraqi Christians have suffered a series of atrocities perpetrated by Sunni and Shia extremists. These attacks have driven most Christians out of the country. In 2003 there were 1.2 million in Iraq; now there are thought to be about 300,000. Many of those displaced say that Christianity in Iraq is finished. If so, this would bring an end to a rich heritage; Christians have been established in the area since the second century AD.

One group of Christians, however, would rather fight than leave — and has started to build its own army. The Assyrians, a distinct ethnic group, have set up a force called the Nineveh Plains protection units. Their aim is to defend the towns and villages they still have and eventually push Isis out of their homeland.

A fundraising appeal has been launched and supporters are mostly drawn from a worldwide Assyrian diaspora of two or three million. The money will fund equipment and training for 3,000 or so volunteers. The militia already has weapons inherited from an insurgency against Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and the organisers say that more than £150,000 has been raised in the past three months. The appeal’s website, restoreninevehnow.org, argues that Assyrians can no longer rely on the Kurds or the Iraqi army to protect them. In the face of Isis, both forces withdrew, leaving Assyrians “with no choice but to flee for their lives”.

A private company of American military veterans has so far trained 500 soldiers. Athra Kado, 25, is one of them. Last August he was employed as a youth worker in Germany. Once he learnt that his family had fled their home he returned to Iraq and volunteered to fight. He argues that a militia is the only choice if Assyrians want to stay in Iraq. “Nobody is helping us,” he says. “The whole world is watching and they are not doing anything.”

Its soldiers patrol the Assyrian Christian town of Alqosh and the village of Sharafiya, less than an hour’s drive from Isis-controlled areas farther south. Two smaller Assyrian militias, working under Kurdish command, are present in the area too. It is hoped that, with the creation of the militias, the Iraqi government will step in and provide funding and equipment.

John Michael, a British-Assyrian who runs an IT company in Ealing, west London, is a supporter of the militia. He is passionate about his people’s history — a collection of artefacts in his office includes a 400-year-old Bible and a statue of Ashur, an ancient Assyrian god. (Assyrians follow the Church of the East, which split from the Western churches in the 4th century, but trace their heritage back to the Assyrian empire, dating from about 2,500 BC).

Between the fifth and 13th centuries Europeans did not even know the Church of the East existed. The church developed independently under a succession of Islamic and Mongol empires. Its liturgy, though composed of the same basic steps, differs significantly from that of Western churches.

“Since the seventh-century AD our people have suffered one massacre after another,” says Michael. The 20th century was particularly deadly, with an estimated half a million killed in the Armenian genocide in 1915 and another 5,000 or so slaughtered by the Iraqi military in 1933. Yet the West pays little attention, he says.

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The Sistine Chapel shouldn’t be a tourist hell

The site of Michelangelo’s famous fresco is both the pope’s private chapel and a lucrative, overcrowded attraction. This conflict could be resolved in a flash – if the Vatican dared

This article was first published in the Catholic Herald on 27 March 2015.

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The Sistine Chapel takes you by surprise. You turn into a narrow, nondescript doorway, and suddenly the world’s most famous fresco looms above you. Taken as a whole it is a breathtaking sight. For the individual scenes you wish you had binoculars. The world it depicts seems to be in 3D – male nudes sit on plinths in the foreground as the story of Genesis unfolds behind them. You stare, mouth open, neck craned, trying to fathom how it works.

Michelangelo took four years to paint the ceiling and, once completed, it won instant renown. His biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote: “When the work was thrown open, the whole world could be heard running up to see it.” Artists such as Titian and Raphael immediately imitated the new style. Prints and drawings of the various scenes circulated in Europe. Two centuries later, Sir Joshua Reynolds, urging students to copy the fresco, called it the “language of the gods”.

The Church proved harder to please. Pope Julius II, who commissioned the work, liked it, but nine years later Adrian VI threatened to have it chiselled off, saying it was more suited to a bath house than a church. Michelangelo’s second fresco, The Last Judgment, painted 25 years later on the altar wall, provoked more controversy. The chief objection was all the flesh on display: the figures being lifted up to heaven and dragged down to hell were mostly naked. During his lifetime, Michelangelo was eminent enough to have his way, but once he died the most explicit details were painted over with loincloths, breeches and bits of flowing drapery.

Adrian VI, who reigned for only 18 months, has been much derided for his dislike of the fresco. But he had a point. Michelangelo was enraptured by the human body. Sensual, muscular figures dominate the chapel. No wonder they caused alarm among Vatican officials. Even today Catholics may wonder if they are not perhaps entirely suitable.

These days, of course, Michelangelo’s artistic triumph is as celebrated as ever. His Sistine Chapel ceiling, which depicts the finger-tip creation of Adam, is regarded as the high point of the Renaissance. Waldemar Januszczak, the Sunday Times critic, calls Michelangelo the “Everest” of the art world. “By most modern measures of such matters,” he writes, “he qualifies as the Adam of his species and was the first artist.”

Thanks to better arts education and cheaper travel, the popularity of the Sistine Chapel has continued to grow. Last year nearly six million tourists flocked to it – three times the number 30 years earlier.

But the chapel is not just a place of secular pilgrimage. It is also the pope’s private chapel. It is where the pope is elected, where he celebrates his first Mass, and, in a tradition started by St Pope John Paul II, where he welcomes newborns into the Church through baptism every January.

The chapel’s two roles – as a tourist spot and a sacred space for Mass – are in conflict. This is especially so when it comes to money. The chapel generates a lot of revenue for the Vatican. Technically, there is no entrance fee. Yet everyone who steps inside it has paid €16 (£12) to get into the Vatican Museums. And most of the tourists who pay that fee aren’t interested in the sculpture, the 16th-century maps or the porphyry (incredible though they are): they are there simply to see the Sistine Chapel.

According to Fortune magazine, the Vatican Museums are the “only branch of the Vatican run like a true business”. They generate £88 million a year. Fortune’s Shawn Tully claims that, along with the Vatican Bank, the museums have been identified as an area for future financial growth, with the Vatican’s financial tsar Cardinal George Pell hoping to increase revenue through marketing and exhibitions.

The museums are already heading in this direction, with administrators happily wringing funds out of the rich and famous. Justin Bieber, for instance, was reported to have paid £15,000 for a private tour, shelling out extra to see the Apostolic Palace, the pope’s official residence. Last October Porsche effectively hired the Sistine Chapel, putting on a concert there for members of its travel club. (The proceeds went to charities working with the poor and homeless.)

If the use of the pope’s chapel to make money is one scandal, the poor treatment of its visitors is another. Unlike at other popular sites, tourist numbers are not capped in any meaningful way. This means that every summer the crush is horrendous. Tour guides report visitors fainting from the heat and parents losing their children in the fray. One irate critic complains on TripAdvisor that they “just push everyone in and take their money”. Another says it is worse than the Tokyo underground. “Are the Musei any good? Don’t know, didn’t see anything!”

Calls for the Vatican to limit numbers are nothing new. In 2012 the Italian writer Pietro Citati caused a furore by describing the Sistine Chapel as an “unimaginable disaster” ruined by tourists resembling “drunken herds”. In an article for the Corriere della Sera, an Italian daily, he complained: “These monstrous conditions are intolerable.”

In response Antonio Paolucci, the director of the museums, accused Citati of being elitist. “The days when only Russian grand dukes and English lords or Bernard Berenson [an American art expert] could gain access to the great masterpieces are definitely over,” he wrote. “Limiting numbers is unthinkable.” Such a sentiment is laudable. But it seems highly convenient, too, given that wider access comes with much greater revenue.

Last autumn Paolucci finally relented, saying visitor numbers would be limited to the current annual figure of six million.

That will not fix the problem. He must go further: a timed entry system and evening opening hours would be a start. In London, where museums and galleries are under pressure to innovate due to shrinking state funding, this is now commonplace.

The Sistine Chapel’s other problems can be solved at a single stroke: by ending its use as a sacred place. That way the chapel can be admired by the world’s art lovers and shore up Vatican finances without causing any scandal. The process would be simple: the pope would issue a decree recognising the church’s new status and the Masses celebrated there would be moved elsewhere. For conclaves there would be no shortage of other venues. If Michelangelo frescoes are a requirement, the elections could take place in the splendid Pauline Chapel, which is slightly older than the Sistine Chapel and just across the hall.

The change may bring relief to papal masters of ceremonies. One contemporary critic of Michelangelo was the pope’s MC, Biagio da Cesena, who thought the nakedness of the figures in The Last Judgment was shameful. In revenge, Michelangelo painted his likeness into the features of Minos, a goat-eared demon. An end to Masses in the chapel would mean future MCs no longer having a predecessor staring out at them from hell.

Right now the Vatican Museums hardly seem poised for dramatic change. Paolucci, the director, and Mgr Paolo Nicolini, the administrative head, have been in their posts since the early days of Benedict XVI’s pontificate. Pope Francis’s attention is elsewhere. But the Sistine Chapel is one of the only points of contact many people around the world have with the Catholic Church.

Francis is trying to reform Vatican finances because he sees the Church’s credibility being damaged by it. The present state of the Sistine Chapel is having the same effect – if only he could reform that too.

Rise early to see the Vatican at its best

‘Before hours’ tours show you the masterpieces without the crowds – and they’re not that expensive

This article was first published in the Spectator on 28 March 2015.

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The sun has only just risen in Rome and we are standing bleary-eyed in a short queue outside the Vatican. Our guide, Tonia, takes us through security, and within minutes we are in a nearly empty Sistine Chapel. In an hour it will be crammed with tourists — sweating, gawping, getting in each other’s way. Vatican officials will be shushing and clapping to quieten the chatter. Now, though, we are free to contemplate Michelangelo’s swirl of naked bodies in peace.

Michelangelo claimed that he painted the ceiling entirely on his own. In fact, Tonia explains, he started off with 15 helpers, though he got rid of them all along the way. He ‘fought everyone’, she says. ‘On the one hand he was amazing but in human relationships, no.’ He was brave, she says, in accepting the job from Pope Julius II in the first place: Julius was a ‘dreadful pope’ who ‘hit Michelangelo with a stick’.

After the Sistine Chapel we are taken around the rest of the Vatican museums, but there is a great risk of aesthetic overload. There are the famous Raphaels and Caravaggios, of course, as well as ancient Roman sculptures. But forget to look up and you will miss dazzling Mannerist and Baroque frescoes. Even the floor you are stepping on is a second-century mosaic.

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Bones of contention: the last rites of Richard III

Catholics would like the monarch’s remains to be prepared for burial in a chapel rather than in a laboratory

This article was first published in The Times on 14 February 2015.

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The bones of Richard III, dug up three years ago in a car park in Leicester, will at last be laid to rest next month. The Archbishop of Canterbury will say prayers as the coffin is lowered into a brick-lined vault beneath Leicester Cathedral. It will be hoped that a solemn, moving occasion — broadcast live on Channel 4 — will put an end to controversy over where and how the last Plantagenet king should be reinterred. Yet even now, just weeks away from the sealing of the tomb, the arrangements are still the subject of dispute.

This time passions have been aroused not by the reinterment itself, but by the “coffining” — that is, the way Richard’s bones are placed in their coffin. A petition, signed by 3,000 Catholics, is calling for the king’s remains to be coffined in a Catholic chapel, rather than, as is planned, at the University of Leicester. What’s more, the petition is being organised by the historians Philippa Langley and John Ashdown-Hill, who were responsible for the discovery of the king’s remains.

Anglican and Catholic officials have rejected the idea, saying there is no need for prayers to be said when the remains are put in a coffin. The university has so far resisted pressure to change its plans. The remains, it says, will be coffined in a “place of appropriate dignity”.

The petition organisers say they want Richard III’s remains to be treated “in a prayerful way, rather than as a scientific specimen”. Ashdown-Hill, author of The Last Days of King Richard III, cites how Richard reburied his own father and brother after they were killed by Lancastrians. “They were surrounded by prayer at every stage of the journey from exhumation to reburial,” he says. “Clearly that’s what Richard III thought was the right thing to do.” But the Rev Pete Hobson, acting canon missioner at Leicester Cathedral, says there is “no precedent or logic” to the request. Praying over remains being placed in a coffin “didn’t happen in medieval times and it doesn’t happen in contemporary times”.

The dispute is part of a broader clash between the university and the “Looking for Richard” team of enthusiasts who pushed for the initial dig. Langley, who financed the excavation after a hunch about where the king’s body would be found, thought it had been agreed that Richard’s remains, once identified, would be placed in a chapel of rest. Instead, after being CT-scanned, carbon-dated and DNA-tested, they were kept at the university.

Recalling Richard’s hasty, ignominious burial after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, Langley says the reinterment is “about making peace with the past — that’s the most powerful thing we can do”. The team says that, apart from the coffining, it is happy with the reinterment plans. Yet its petition, by calling for Richard to be placed in a coffin “in a place of Catholic sanctity, with the prayers and rites of his own religion”, opens up another question. If Richard III was a Catholic, why is he being buried in an Anglican cathedral?

The simple answer is that the university, which held the exhumation licence, chose Leicester Cathedral. The Catholic church did not get a look in, but Richard enthusiasts argue that the king was genuinely devout, and therefore would have cared about the manner of his reinterment.

Desmond Seward, author of Richard III: England’s Black Legend, agrees that Richard was a religious man. He points to the many chantries Richard founded for priests to pray for the dead. Michael Hicks, emeritus professor at Winchester University, however, says that even if Richard was religious, he hardly led a Christian life: he killed, broke oaths, produced bastards — and probably murdered his nephews.

Seward points out that reburying the king in a way that would have been familiar to him would not be possible today. Masses in Britain before the 16th century were celebrated according to the Sarum Rite, the “most elaborate in Christendom”. A Requiem Mass would require 20 ministers dressed in black vestments at the altar and three cross-bearers. “The modern Catholic Church could not find the clerics to do this and, in any case, Rome would never give permission,” he says.

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Sri Lanka’s not-so-tranquil Buddhists

Pope Francis faces a big challenge when he heads to Sri Lanka this month – dealing with the bitter hostility of the island’s extremist Buddhist monks

This article was first published in The Catholic Herald on January 2 2015.

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Last year the satirical news site The Onion published a story about Buddhist extremism. Its headline read: “Extremist cell vows to unleash tranquillity on the West.” It described a video posted online in which a monk threatened “an assault of profound inner stillness” and said “no city will be spared from spiritual harmony … We will bring the entire United States to its knees in deep meditation.”

In Western culture the Buddhist monk is an unshakably serene and peaceful figure, unwilling to hurt a fly. Yet Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka are likely to have a different picture. The sight of saffron robes may bring to mind not tranquillity but an angry crowd, a shaking fist or a brick thrown through the window.

Buddhist aggression against minorities in Sri Lanka rose sharply last year. In January three Pentecostal churches were attacked by mobs. At least one of these mobs was led by monks. Furniture and windows were smashed and a prayer centre set on fire. In June anti-Muslim riots in the south-west of the country brought violence on a much larger scale. Four people were killed, 80 injured and 10,000 displaced. Neighbourhoods were torched and homes ransacked.

Pope Francis, who is expected to arrive in the country on January 13, will be deeply aware of the dangers Sri Lanka’s minorities face. His first challenge is to avoid making them worse.

Tensions have long existed in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the rest of the population. These were pushed to the background during the decades-long civil conflict with the Tamil Tigers, a secular insurgency finally crushed in 2009.

Since then extremists have found their voice in a group called Bodu Bala Sena (“Buddhist Power Force”), or BBS. The group, founded in 2012, says it only seeks to defend Sri Lanka’s Buddhist identity and distances itself from any violence. Yet the rioting against Muslims followed rallies held by BBS nearby. The spark was an altercation between two Muslims and a Buddhist monk, but a fiery address by the BBS leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, escalated the tension dramatically. To an angry crowd he exclaimed: “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person – let alone a monk – it will be the end of all of them!”

The group is not keen on Pope Francis either. After the Holy See confirmed his three-day visit, BBS issued a statement, saying: “Pope Francis must apologise to Buddhists for the atrocities committed by Christian colonial governments in South Asia.” Assuming the trip is not cancelled because of its proximity to Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, the Pope will have to tread carefully.

Buddhist extremism has become a danger not just in Sri Lanka but in Burma, too. Similar riots against Muslims have killed at least 200 people in the past two years. A Burmese movement called 969 has emerged that, like BBS, sees Muslims – and to a lesser extent Christians – as predatory aggressors out to destroy Buddhist culture.

Francis has little experience of Buddhism to draw on. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires he built close relationships with Jews, Muslims and Protestants. On his visit to the Middle East he was accompanied by two old friends, a rabbi and an imam, whose embrace at the Western Wall transmitted a powerful image to the world. But Buddhists are barely a presence in Argentina. His journey to South Asia – the first by a pope since St John Paul II went to India in 1999 – will mark a step into the unknown.

His chief antagonists are Gnanasara, the hot-headed leader of BBS, and Wirathu, leader of 969, who jokingly calls himself “the bald Bin Laden”. The pair, both monks, have close links. Last year they met twice, and Wirathu attended a BBS conference in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, addressing 5,000 supporters. They will be eyeing the Pope’s visit closely, particularly on the second day, when Francis meets Buddhist and other religious leaders. Any clumsy reference to the country’s recent war or its colonial history could lead to difficulties.

The monks’ causes have become popular because many in Sri Lanka and Burma feel that Buddhism is under siege. Despite both countries being majority Buddhist there is a sense that the religion is being edged out by more aggressive faiths.

To bolster this view the groups’ supporters argue that Buddhism has long been on the losing end of history. They recall the time 1,000 years ago, before the spread of Islam and the growth of Western empires, when nearly all of Asia was Buddhist. Now countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh are mainly Muslim and the Philippines is mainly Catholic. Burmese and Sri Lankan nationalists see Buddhist diminishment in terms of military advancement by Christians and Muslims. This aggression, they feel, continues today. As the official BBS website says: “The call for Buddhist nationalism is a last resort to … ensure history is not repeated.”

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