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Christian Sisters Slain in Iraqi Robbery Attempt

by Peter Lamprecht

3/31/07 Iraq (Compass Direct News) – The murder of two Christian women in their Kirkuk home this week highlights growing insecurity facing Christians, often targeted for money in war-torn Iraq .

Kirkuk Archbishop Louis Sako said that thieves repeatedly stabbed and strangled lay Christians Fadhila Naoum, 85, and Margaret Naoum, 79, after breaking into their house at 7:30 p.m. on Monday evening (March 26).

Though a police official told The Associated Press that he had ruled out the possibility of attempted robbery, Sako said he believed the murders were motivated only by theft.

“It was a pure robbery [attempt],” Sako told Compass. “[The robbers] were looking for money and gold. I was at the house half an hour after the murder, and it was completely in disorder.”

Speaking from Kirkuk yesterday following a mass celebrated on behalf of the sisters to complete the traditional three days of mourning, the archbishop commented that “chaos” in Iraq , not religious violence, was behind the killings.

Open Doors, a Christian organization working with suffering Christians around the world, said in a January 17 press release, “The main reason [for attacks on Christians] is money.” The organization noted that Muslim extremists have worked to expel Christians from certain cities, but said that most Iraqi Christians are targeted because they own shops and are believed to have money.

Clergy in Baghdad told Compass that five of seven church leaders kidnapped in Iraq last year were likely targeted solely for money.

Religious Overtones

But the brutality of the murders and the lack of evidence of theft have led some to believe that the crime may have had religious overtones.

“The terrorists have already killed a Christian policeman, soldier and oil engineer,” Kirkuk cathedral priest Father Saoor Shamel told the Tuscaloosa News on Tuesday (March 27).

The AP reported on March 27 that 1st Lt. Marewan Salih said there was no sign of a robbery, but the article incorrectly claimed that the sisters were nuns. Sako confirmed to Compass that the murderers had taken nothing from the Naoums’ home.

Margaret Naoum had just returned home from evening mass at the Chaldean Cathedral when two intruders broke into her home, Sako said.

According to Sako, the robbers stabbed Fadhila Naoum repeatedly while she was lying on the living room sofa and then strangled her sister in the yard.

Unmarried, the Naoum sisters lived alone near Kirkuk ’s Chaldean Cathedral. Only one relative, a niece in Baghdad , was able to travel to Kirkuk for the funeral, held in the cathedral at noon on Tuesday (March 27), Sako said.

But the murder received widespread media attention, including coverage of the funeral on Christian Iraqi satellite channel Ashtar TV. Sako told Compass that the murder was openly condemned by all of Kirkuk ’s religious communities.

Suffering Minorities

Despite unclear motives, the murders illustrate a growing lawlessness in Iraq that has hurt all communities, particularly Christians and other minorities.

Neighborhood police chief Col. Taha Salah disavowed responsibility for the slaying, telling the Tuscaloosa News, “‘We can’t secure people in their houses after midnight.’”

The chaos has especially harmed minorities, who make up 30 percent of refugees fleeing Iraq despite constituting only 10 percent of the country’s population, according to Minority Rights Group International (MRG).

MRG ranked Iraq the second most dangerous place in the world for minorities in its annual report last week.

“Minorities suffer from specific attacks and threats due to their ethnic or religious status, and cannot benefit from the community-based protection often available to the larger groups,” the MRG report noted.

In Mosul , the biblical city of Nineveh , Muslim extremists beheaded a Syrian Orthodox priest in October 2006 and shot a Presbyterian church elder in November 2006, specifically because of their Christian identity.

Iraq ’s minority communities consist of both ethnic and religious groups, with Turkoman, Faili Kurds, and Shabak forming the main Muslim minority groups.

Until 1991, Christians constituted 3 percent of the country’s population, hailing mainly from the Chaldean (Eastern rite Catholic) and Assyrian (Church of the East) churches as well as the smaller Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Eastern rite Catholic, Armenian (Orthodox and Catholic) and Protestant churches.

Iraq ’s Christian population has dropped in half since 2003 due to emigration, according to a January 4 IRIN article quoting the Iraqi Ministry of Migration and Displacement. Compass has monitored the growth of small numbers of Kurdish and Arab converts from Islam.

Other religious minorities that have been particularly destabilized by Iraq ’s internal conflict are Mandeans, who follow Gnostic traditions, Yazidis, Bahais and a small number of Jews.

Palestinians, many of them living in Iraq since 1948, now total 15,000, down from 35,000 in 2003, according to MRG.