Mother Jones, CA
Aug 3 2004

Christians Leaving Iraq

The religious leaders of Iraq's small Christian community have
long-downplayed the fact that many Iraqi-Christians are leaving Iraq.
But Sunday's coordinated attacks in Baghdad and Mosul on five
churches -- which, unlike mosques, have not previously been targeted
-- will no doubt strengthen the resolve of Iraqi-Christians thinking
of leaving Iraq and convince others of the necessity of doing so.

Iraq's Christians -- Chaldean Catholics; Assyrians; Roman and Syriac
Catholics; Greek, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox; Angicans and others
-- make up 3 percent of the population, and are concentrated in the
cities. Of course, the lack of security has been a problem for all
Iraqis, whatever their religion, but the country's Christians feel
particularly vulnerable to attack. For one, many within the
insurgency view the American-led coalition as a Christian crusade and
Iraq's Christian community as its supporters and collaborators. Shops
selling alcohol, many of them owned by Christians, have been
attacked, their merchandise destroyed, and their owners beaten and
even murdered. As the BBC reported last month, the Iraqi police
blamed the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army for the
attacks: "His men are no longer fighting American and interim Iraqi
government troops, and some suspect they are now channelling their
energies into a moral battle instead."

Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie held Egyptian
militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi responsible for Sunday's attacks on the
churches, which occurred during mass, killing 11 people and injuring
47: "Zarqawi and his extremists are basically trying to drive a wedge
between Muslims and Christians in Iraq. It's clear they want to drive
Christians out of the country." But as the Christian Science Monitor
reported last month:

"Not all Christians are killed by Islamic militants. Issaq [director
of international relations for the Assyrian Democratic Movement] has
compiled a list of 102 Christians killed since April 9, 2003. Some
were killed for selling alcohol; others for working with Americans as
translators or laundresses. (About 10 percent were killed by
coalition troops, casualties of postwar violence.) Many were
kidnapped and killed for money, a fate that befalls Muslims, too.

But sometimes it's hard to separate kidnappings from religious
murders. Among Iraqis, there's a widespread belief that Christians
are wealthy. This stereotype, too, can kill."

Iraq's Christians had their churches destroyed and themselves
forcibly relocated under Saddam Hussein, but they didn't experience
the sort of persecution that the majority Shia, not to say the Kurds,
have been subjected to. Considered less politically threatening by
the Baath Party than Islamic minorities and the Shia majority,
Christians were granted a greater degree of religious freedom in
return for their political obedience. Relations between Muslims and
Christians have generally been placid.

Today, Iraqi Christians are upset about what they say is inadequate
representation in the current government (a claim echoed by every
group) and they fear the creation of an Islamist state. Some
Christian leaders say that a separate Christian province is necessary
to protect the country's minority. Aside from the obvious failure of
coalition troops to provide security, the United States is blamed by
some Christians for promoting Islamic rule in Iraq, where Christians
date their presence to the first century. As one Assyrian-Iraqi told
UPI in early June:

"The American-funded TV station, Al Iraqia, broadcasts Muslim
programs four times every day and for two hours each Friday but
nothing for the other religions. The recent inauguration of the new
government was opened by a Muslim mullah reciting a long passage and
a prayer from the Koran, but none of our priests were invited. Why do
they do this? Why do the Americans promote Muslims? They need to
promote equality and democracy and freedom, not Muslim dictatorship."

Among the Iraqi-Christians who have emigrated, some have settled in
neighboring countries like Syria, while others have received asylum
in Australia, North America, and Europe. Australia's Iraqi-born
population, which includes the various Christian dominations as well
as Kurds and Jews, has grown dramatically since Gulf War. In 1991,
there were 5,186 Iraqi-born persons in Australia, but in 2001, the
last year for which census figures are available there were 24,819.
Among Iraqi-Armenians, who make up one of the smaller Christian
communities, some have emigrated to the Republic of Armenia.

The number of Christians seeking to emigrate is unknown, but the
estimated 800,000 that live in Iraq today represent a marked decline
from the 1987 census that registered 1.4 million Iraqi-Christians.
Shmael Benjamin a member of the political bureau of the Assyrian
Democratic Movement told Reuters: "We're the Red Indians of Iraq. We
were the majority, today we're the minority, our percentage is
reducing day by day in this country." Perhaps, as Slate puts it,
"with Iraq's Shiites and Kurds having earlier been targeted by
bombings, it was probably only a matter of time before the country's
Christians would get their turn." But given the previous attacks on
Christians, the continuing lack of security for everyone, and fears
of a future Islamist state, Iraqi's Christians are more likely to
draw the conclusion that it is time to pack their bags.

-- Nonna Gorilovskaya