Iraq Losing Its Christian Heritage
The flight of religious minorities escaping violence in post-war Iraq is threatening to rob the country of its once diverse Christian heritage.
In the early 1980s, Iraq ‘s Christian population numbered 1.4 million but economic strife brought on by the war with Iran and UN sanctions after the 1991 Gulf War pushed some in the ancient community to emigrate.
Nevertheless, the Christian community continued to enjoy religious freedoms in the majority Muslim country until the US-led invasion of 2003, says Adli Juwaidah, a former director of cultural relations in Iraq ‘s ministry of higher education.
“The relationship with the [former Baathist] ruling regime was good and it trusted them, but it is important that significantly this was because the Christians did not interfere in politics and did not have political ambition,” he told Aljazeera.net.
But after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the Christian community found itself under attack and tens of thousands have since fled the country in fear of religious persecution.
“The days of officially preached religious tolerance during Saddam’s rule are gone and freedom to worship now gives way to fear about an impending Islamisation of Iraq,” a United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) study of Iraqi Christians said in 2004.
On August 2, 2004, more than a dozen Christian worshippers were killed when five Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean churches came under co-ordinated attacks in the capital Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul .
Nine other churches were attacked before the end of the year.
Shop owners threatened
In addition to church bombings, Christian shop owners selling alcohol have been targeted by groups trying to enforce Islamic laws.
Stores selling music tapes and CDs, mostly owned by Christian merchants, have also been firebombed and their owners told to stop “corrupting Islamic society”.
In 2004, leaflets were left at the homes of Christian families warning the “men of the households” to adhere to Islamic law and ensure that women were dressed “conservatively”, which often refers to Islamic attire.
Young Christian women have reported harassment and intimidation in the streets to don veils or scarves to cover their hair.
Fayrouz Hancock, an Iraq-Australian computer programmer now living in the US , says Iraqi Christians are fleeing “because of the difficulties of practising their faith and leading normal social lives in a country that has turned conservative due to the threats from extremists”.
She also blames the breakdown in security in the country.
In early May, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) warned that religiously motivated attacks signalled “an exodus that may mean the end of the presence in Iraq of ancient Christian and other communities that have lived on those same lands for 2,000 years”.
Michael La Civita, assistant secretary for communications for the Pontifical Mission, a Vatican development agency working in the Middle East , says there is no “outright” persecution of the Christian community.
However, “there is social discrimination of Iraqi Christians. And since the collapse of central authority (beginning with the second US-led invasion), Iraqi Christians have been targeted by extremists”, La Civita told Aljazeera.net.
“As a result, large numbers of Iraqi Christians are leaving Iraq , settling in Jordan , temporarily. Because Middle Eastern Christians are typically middle class, well educated, speak a number of European languages and have family in the diaspora, they find refuge in the West.”
Exact figures of how many Christians have left since the US invasion are hard to come by. The Iraqi government has not issued any figures on the community and many who have left do not register with any refugee or aid organisations.
“Western sources seem uninterested in writing about their number or situation,” says William Warda, an Assyrian researcher and webmaster of Christians of Iraq, a website that monitors news and information on the community.
“Christians of the Middle East have practised a pacifist form of Christianity and have always strived to live in peace with their neighbours regardless of their religion,” he said, adding that the Iraqi Christians are afraid to complain fearing retaliation.
Soon after the August 2004 church bombings, reports from the Iraq-Syria border indicated 40,000 Iraqi Christians had fled to Damascus and Aleppo , with thousands more crossing into Turkey .
La Civita says figures from the Holy See indicate less than 300,000 Catholics (Chaldean, Syriac and Armenian Catholics) remain in Iraq .
NA, a 35-year-old Christian woman in Basra , who agreed to be identified by her initials only, is alarmed by the new Iraq and the militias which roam the streets of her once beautiful city.
A few weeks ago, as she walked to her church a few blocks from her home, she and a female friend and their children were accosted by two men on a motorbike who shouted anti-Christian slurs.
“The police were standing there without trying to prevent them from harassing us, I was terrified, not only for myself but for the whole group and especially the little ones,” she said.
The men on the motorbike left once the entourage entered the sanctuary of the church.
But Basra area churches are also declining in number.
In previous weeks, two churches closed when their reverends fled for Jordan after receiving death threats.
“The number of Christian families leaving is growing,” NA says.
“I don’t know the exact number, but from around me each month more than 10 families are fleeing, and that’s just the families I can see at the Catholic Church.”
While she says she refuses to don the headscarf, she will leave the country at the first chance she gets.
“I fear for my life because they are killing people without any reason, and making others leave their jobs just because they are Sunni or Shia and the Christians in here are like a very weak old person … we don’t know what to do or where to go,” she told Aljazeera.net.
With Baghdad and other cities unofficially becoming demarcated into sectarian neighbourhoods, Christian families have found themselves particularly vulnerable.
While the cities of Mosul and Falluja, for example, are considered Sunni safe havens and Karbala and Najaf are Shia safe havens, there are no regions where Christians are a majority and therefore could escape to.
The result has been that many have left the country entirely.
Furthermore, Christians do not have the support of militias which many Sunnis and Shia are afforded because of tribal affiliations.
“At least the Kurds, Shia and the Sunnis [have] well equipped militias to protect them from wholesale attacks against them, and they have allies who will come to their help if there is a civil war,” Warda said.
Friar Yousif Thomas, a Chaldean Catholic in Baghdad , says all-out sectarian conflict means Christians will be caught in the middle.
“If a civil war is declared between Shia and Sunni, it is comprehensible that Christians cannot defend themselves. The choice of going out is very bitter for the majority of them, but do they have any other choice?” he says.
Despite the difficulties in practising their faith and threats, an Iraq bereft of Christians is difficult for the community to grasp.
Christians pre-date Islam by some 700 years and have lived in the area known as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq ) since St Thomas the Apostle preached in 30 CE and founded t
he East Syriac Church .
“I can’t imagine an Iraq without Iraqi Christians, says Hancock.
“Iraqi Christians contributed to Iraq with their skills and loyalty to the country. It is sad to watch what happened to them for the last three years.”
Iraq Losing Its Christian Heritage