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Iraqi Christians flee after violence

ICC Note:

“I am a stranger in my own land now. Why not be a stranger in a strange land now? I don’t recognize my country,” said an Iraqi Christian after the massacre in a Baghdad church on October 31 which has caused many Christians to flee the country. According to a report issued by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), only half of Iraq’s Christians remain in the country since the war began in 2003.

By Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy

11/18/2010 Iraq (The Washington Post) – In Baghdad Our Lady of Salvation church, once a vibrant center of prayer in this predominantly Muslim city, is nearly empty now. Last month, in a more than four-hour siege, gunmen shot their way in and killed at least 58 people, sending a message that Christians, among many others, are not safe in Iraq.

The names of the dead are pasted on the floor in the center of the church and surrounded by lighted candles. But the window glass is missing, destroyed by blasts and gunfire, and craters dot the ground – all reminders of the four suicide bombers who carried out the deadly attack along with other gunmen.

“Yes, we may shed some tears. We may have sadness, but we will not give up,” the Rev. Mukhlis Shasha preached to about 50 people during one of a series of special Catholic Masses for the dead this week. Some that came to pray, sitting against plaster walls gouged with bullet holes, were not Christians, but neighbors who had come to pay their respects.

Just a few weeks ago, before the Oct. 31 massacre, more than 350 people regularly attended Sunday Masses here. But now, many from this ancient Syriac Catholic community have fled. Others are too afraid to attend Mass in a place they think is being targeted by extremist groups and militias that have plagued the country during more than seven years of war.

Since the attack, Christian homes across the capital have been hit by bombs, two Christian men were killed in Mosul and Christian families have made their way out of the country or fled to the much safer northern Iraq, where Kurdish security forces control the area. Christians have not been the only victims of violence in the past month, but the attacks against them are disproportionate to the size of the vulnerable minority.

The new wave of displacement could devastate an already dwindling Christian community. Some worry that if something doesn’t change, there will soon be no Christians left in Iraq.

“They can’t protect us. Let them protect themselves first,” said Waleed Jamil Butrous, a parishioner who survived the shooting, huddled in a back room with one man and 10 women and children. The politicians “are not men. We are the men. We were the ones here, who go out with no guards. The nation will lose the Christian community. I’m leaving, others are leaving.”

“We’re not scared for ourselves,” added his wife, Sahera Marzana. “We’re scared for our children.”

Yonadem Kanna, an Assyrian legislator in Iraq’s parliament, said that leaving is not the answer and insisted that many are staying. He noted that bombs targeting Muslims just days after the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation killed more people. And he complained about European countries that have urged Iraqi Christians to emigrate.

“There are international voices trying to pull us out, and in tandem, these attacks are pushing us out. I say shut up and let us live in our country,” Kanna said. “This was timed for the formation of the government, the extremists are attacking everybody, especially the most vulnerable people and especially the easy targets that can capture the attention of the world.”

“I am a stranger in my own land now,” said a Christian who was too afraid to share his name. “Why not be a stranger in a strange land now? I don’t recognize my country.”

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