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ICC Note: A great article that really exposes the plight of the Iraqi Christian. Hat’s off to Mark McKinnon

Christians at Risk in Iraq
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

3/13/2007 Iraq (For the full story, go to Scripps News) Sunday evenings in this quiet Christian town in the north of Iraq have a serene feel about them. As the light fades, parishioners gather on the steps of St. Elias’s church, congratulating the priest on that day’s sermon. Their children play in the adjacent park beneath a giant artificial tree with the number “2007” on it.

If it weren’t for the two men with Kalashnikov rifles standing guard over it all, it could be a scene outside a church anywhere in the world.

Iraq ‘s Christians, however, are a community under siege. Few of those who attend mass at St. Elias’s are residents of Ainkawa, which is part of the country’s Kurdish autonomous region. Most are internal refugees from the south and center of the country, where Christians are caught in the middle of a raging civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. “The Sunnis and the Shiites have a dispute with each other, and we’re trapped in the middle of it,” said Souad Lahad, a 45-year-old mother of four who fled with her family to Ainkawa from the war-ravaged city of Mosul two months ago.
The Sunday evening Arabic-language mass at St. Elias, which is so popular that some worshippers are forced to listen from outside the overflowing church, was recently instituted especially for new arrivals from other parts of Iraq. The other six Sunday masses at the two main churches in town, which are conducted in ancient Aramaic, were filled to the bursting point.

“Christians are being terrorized in the south. They have no peace and no safety with the death squads and car bombs. At least they find peace here in Kurdistan,” said Father Tariq Choucha, who estimated that his parish at St. George’s church in Ainkawa has swelled 50 percent with the arrival of 1,500 families from the south and center of Iraq in the four years since the U.S. invasion.

To the dismay of many in Ainkawa, their plight has largely been ignored in the West. When U.S. soldiers arrived in Baghdad , many Christians assumed their lives would get better than they had been under Saddam Hussein. Instead, Father Tariq said he was “embarrassed” that as a priest he could not provide enough food, shelter and blankets to help all the newly arrived who are in need. He pleaded for Christian communities in Canada and elsewhere to do more for the Christians of Iraq.

“If this situation is only temporary, we’ll be okay,” said Father Rayan Atto, a priest at the nearby St. Joseph ‘s church. “We need more help. We’ve got people who are very poor, people who have no place, people who have no electricity.”

He said it was imperative that something be done to keep the Christian population from being entirely driven from Iraq . While 800,000 Christians once lived in the country, representing about 3 percent of the total pre-war population, Christians are believed to make up about 20 percent of all those who have fled the country since 2003.

Most of the refugees who arrive here come from Baghdad and Mosul, where Sunni and Shia militant groups have made it clear one of the world’s oldest Christian populations _ most of whom are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but recognize the Pope’s authority, and Assyrians _ was no longer welcome in Iraq.

In 2004, four churches in the capital and another in Mosul were bombed on a single day, leaving 11 people dead. Discrimination against Christians spiked dramatically, as militant groups attacked liquor stores and warned Christian women to wear Islamic dress.

Father Tariq said that while Christians hardly prospered under Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime _ they suffered through two decades of sanctions and war with the rest of Iraq _ those days seem halcyon now. “Before, there were just the Baathists to worry about. Now there is (radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-) Sadr, (Ayatollah Ali) Sistani, al Qaeda. So many groups,” Father Tariq said. He said he was worried that the Christian community, which has existed in Iraq almost since the religion began, might soon be driven out of the country altogether.

“We have been in this country longer than the Muslims,” he said. “But we are overwhelmed now.”