Remembering Iraq’s Displaced Christians One Year after Baghdad Church Massacre
By Aidan Clay
October 31 (ICC) – Today marks the anniversary of last year’s four-hour siege on a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad that ended with al-Qaida linked militants massacring 58 worshippers. The attack was the worst against Iraqi Christians since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and enticed many of the already dwindling Christian population in Baghdad to leave the city permanently.
“We’ve had enough now. Leaving Iraq has become a must,” Jamal Habo Korges, a Christian mechanic and father of three, told the United Nation’s humanitarian news outlet IRIN. “We’ve been suffering since 2003 and we can’t take it anymore. The latest carnage is the final warning.”
Father Douglas al-Bazi, who was kidnapped and tortured four years earlier, told The Christian Science Monitor after the attack that his Chaldean parish in Baghdad had dwindled from 2,500 families in the 1990s to less than 300.
“Of course I cannot ask anyone to stay,” he said. “Everyone tells me ‘Father, I am sorry – I will leave.’ I tell them, ‘Don’t be sorry, okay? No one is pushing you to die, what’s the benefit of dying?’”
Iraq’s Christian population prior to 2003 was estimated at one million or more. Today, fewer than 400,000 remain. Those who leave either become internally displaced – most going to the less violent Kurdish north – or flee the country altogether.
Of the two million Iraqi refugees worldwide, nearly half reside in neighboring Syria. Twenty-five percent of them are Christian according to local church leaders – a stark comparison to the four percent that made up Iraq’s Christian population before the war.
Upon arrival in Syria, many Iraqi Christian immigrants have nothing more than the shirt on their backs. “Most of these families arrived with their hand bags and nothing else in their hands. It is a pitiful situation,” a Syrian church leader told World Magazine. The Syrian government does not allow refugees to hold jobs or apply for residency, and does not offer public assistance for health care, schooling, or other legal services needed to file for refugee status.
Conditions are similar in Turkey, but there is generally greater optimism among refugees that eventually they will be allowed to immigrate to a western country. However, the wait period often takes two to five years and refugees, including asylum seekers registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), have been known to be arbitrarily deported back to their homeland by the Turkish government.
Ala’a and her family had fled to Turkey three years ago from Mosul. Her father, from a Sunni background, and mother, from a Shia background, converted to Christianity in 2005, the result of a close friendship with a local Chaldean bishop who encouraged them to read the Bible. When returning to Mosul after a trip outside the country in April 2008, Ala’a’s family learned that the bishop had been murdered and their conversion had become known.
Hiding in obscure hotels and plotting their escape, a family relative eventually found them. With a knife and gasoline, he entered their hotel room, but only Ala’a was present. Pinning Ala’a to the ground, he poured petrol over his cousin’s body from the neck down and lit her on fire. “I’m doing this because you’re a Christian and you’re going to have to marry a Christian now,” Ala’a, who was only fourteen at the time, recalls him saying.
Returning to the room from an outdoor latrine, Ala’a’s younger brother Muhammad found his unconscious sister on the floor and sought help. Ala’a was confined to a hospital bed for a month before she and her family could flee Mosul to Erbil and later to Turkey for refuge.
“[Our nephew] would have tried to kill the entire family if we had been home,” Ala’a’s father told ICC. “Thankfully, our 12-year-old son was not in the room also or he would be dead.”
Ala’a’s story sounds all too familiar among Iraqi Christians. Three years after Ala’a’s flight from Iraq, the situation for Iraqi Christians remains the same. On August 15, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Mar Afram in Kirkuk was bombed by insurgents, making it the third time the church has been bombed in the past five years. On September 30, three Assyrian Christians and a Turkman Muslim were ransomed after being kidnapped a week earlier near Kirkuk. And, on October 1, the bodies of two Christians, Hanna Polos Emmanuel and Bassam Isho, who had been shot, were found in or near Kirkuk.
Of the hundreds of thousands of Christians who have left Iraq because of religious-based violence, few wish to return. “If all of Iraq was given to me, I would not go back. There is no life, no law,” a Christian mother in the Kurtuluş district of Istanbul, which is often called ‘Little Baghdad’ and is populated by many Christian refugees, told the Turkish daily Hürriyet.
Iraqi Christians, many of whom were formerly doctors or business owners in their homeland, now wait years without employment as impoverished refugees to immigrate to a western nation. Their desperate circumstances raise the question: are western governments and agencies that are mandated to protect and support refugees doing enough? Many Iraqis reply by saying they are not getting the help they need.
“These Assyrian [refugees] have no land to return to. Assyrians need security [in Iraq], they are not leaving for any other reason. Why is it that the West is not assisting?” Mar Dinkha IV, Patriarch of the Assyrian of the East church in Iraq, asked me in genuine disbelief. Sadly, no adequate response to his question can be given to grant Iraqi Christian refugees the consolation they need during these difficult times.