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Iraqi Christians flee ancient roots for uncertain future in Beirut suburbs
By Haro Chakmakjian

Iraq, Lebanon (Daily Star) Reduced to sneaking in the night across borders to escape and then moonlighting to survive, most Iraqi Christian families are resigned to never returning to the land of their ancestors. “Under Saddam we lived in safety. At least we had our dignity and a decent life,” said Duleir Nuri Sleiman, father of three girls, referring to Iraq ‘s executed dictator Saddam Hussein, who ruled with an iron fist.

With his eyes on Europe or the United States for resettlement, Sleiman has reached the transit stop of Lebanon , filled with worries about health care, schooling and avoiding detention by immigration authorities.

The Chaldean family of five lives in a Spartan room above a barber’s shop in the Christian suburb of Jdeideh, relying on his modest income as a painter and decorator.

Lubna, a mother of three young girls, told of their escape from blood-soaked Iraq through the relatively safe Kurdish north, then visa-free Syria and on to Lebanon across a river. She is too scared to give the family name.

“We walked for two hours in silence, just whispering. We were very frightened. It was night. We were scared the girls would fall into the water. Lebanese border guards fired overhead,” she said.

The family paid $1,200 for the December 2004 crossing, during which Syrian guards escorted them on Syria ‘s side of the frontier, and Lebanese on the other, communicating via mobile phones over a border river.

The decision to abandon their church’s centuries-old roots in Iraq that predate Islam was taken after husband Massud’s policeman brother was killed by Al-Qaeda gunmen.

“My mother told me: ‘Take your family and seek your future elsewhere,'” said Massud, who works as the caretaker of two Jdeideh apartment blocks.

“Now we want to move to a country where we can live in dignity,” he said.

But in their tiny basement room, with foam mattresses neatly stacked in a corner and Virgin Mary postcards on the wall, the heartbreak continues.

” Iraq is in my heart – there is no more beautiful country than Iraq . The very earth is gold. But it will never be the same,” sighed Lubna, the young mother from the northern city of Mosul , her eyes watering.

“We have our security now, but our dignity has gone,” said her husband, whose family, like most other Iraqi Christian refugees, walks to a local church every Sunday.

Even so, Jdeideh and other suburbs of mostly Christian East Beirut – where thousands of Chaldean, Assyrian, Armenian and Syriac fellow Christian refugees have flocked – are targeted by bombings linked to Lebanon ‘s own crises.

“We have no problem with anyone here, even if Lebanon has its own problems. We restrict our movements to a minimum,” Massud added.

Iraq ‘s Christians, with the Catholic Chaldean rite making up by far the largest community, were said to number as many as 800,000. Their churches have been bombed, homes confiscated and the Baghdad district of Dora has been virtually emptied of Christians after a warning either to pay an Islamic tax on infidels, convert or stay and risk execution.

Without their own militia to defend them, the community is believed to have shrunk to half its previous number, with more joining the exodus each day,

although in far smaller numbers than the country’s vast Muslim majority.

“Even if the situation were suddenly to improve – a highly unlikely prospect – it is already too late to reverse the effects of the [Christian] hemorrhaging,” Rayyan al-Shawaf wrote in a commentary for The Daily Star.

“Without their churches in Iraq , they will never go back,” agreed former bank manager George Semaan, 67, a leader of Lebanon ‘s own small Chaldean community. “There is nothing, no future for the Christians in Iraq . We want them to resettle here, but we don’t have the means,” he said from the Chaldean bishopric in the Hazmieh mountain suburb northeast of Beirut .

On a hill near the bishopric, which hands out limited aid and has become a first stop for Christian families fleeing Iraq , the heavily guarded Iraqi embassy “does nothing to help them,” said Semaan.

Christian charities and Catholic institutions such as Opus Dei provide schooling for the children, while male heads of families take on low-paid menial jobs and wives work as housemaids – all illegally.

Of an estimated 40,000 Iraqis in Lebanon , between 15-30 percent are believed to be Christians. Before the exodus began, they made up about 3 percent of Iraq ‘s population.

“The Christians, as well as Sunnis and Shiites, are attracted by the religious diversity

of Lebanon ,” said Laure Chedrawi of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The agency provides those who register with refugee certificates. Although not officially recognized, the certificates do serve as proof of identity, thanks to an understanding between the UNHCR and the Lebanese authorities.

The UNHCR registers about 20 new refugees per day at its Beirut office. Single Iraqis opt for the longer and more precarious Turkish route to Europe out of Iraq . “More people are being detained, but there have been no deportations so far,” Chedrawi said.

Lebanon is wary of accepting refugees for fear of upsetting its own fragile sectarian balance. It already has hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and a sizeable Armenian Christian community from survivors of Ottoman Turkey.

Semaan said the Chaldeans, especially those from outside Baghdad , often speak little Arabic on arrival. “They ask you: ‘Do you speak Christian?'” he said, referring to Surath, a dialect of the Aramaic language of Jesus Christ.

From their modest low-rent apartments in the Christian suburbs, the Iraqis take to the streets in the evening hours and mingle with Lebanese neighbors.

Sarmat, a 12-year-old from Baghdad , could not hide his joy while hanging out with Lebanese and Syrian friends. “My family just got papers to go to Sweden ,” he said. “I hear it’s great over there.”