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Iraq's Christians consider fleeing as attacks on them rise

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  • Iraq's Christians consider fleeing as attacks on them rise

    Christian Science Monitor
    July 12 2004

    Iraq's Christians consider fleeing as attacks on them rise

    By Annia Ciezadlo | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

    BAGHDAD - It was 10:30 in the morning, almost four months ago, and
    the children were getting ready for church. Aziz Raad Azzo, 5 years
    old, was drinking his milk; his 14-year-old sister Raneen was putting
    on her new clothes. When they heard a car pull up, Raneen, thinking
    her father was home, ran to the window and flung open the shutters.
    Four men shot her and her little brother in the head.
    The children's crime: Their father, a Christian storekeeper, had sold

    Before the murders, the family received a photocopied death threat.
    "We are warning you, the enemies of God and Islam, from selling
    alcohol again, and unless you stop we will kill you and send you to
    hell where a worse fate awaits you," reads the warning, signed by
    "Harakat Ansar al-Islam," the Partisans of Islam Movement.

    Shortly after the murders, their father wrote a letter to an Iraqi
    human rights group. "Please save me," he begged, "and help me leave
    the country."

    Facing a rising tide of persecution, Iraq's tiny Christian minority
    has a terrible choice: stay and risk their lives, or leave and
    abandon those left behind. Afraid of an Islamic future in which they
    would be outcasts, thousands are trying to flee. "It's like a huge
    amount of people lined up at the starting line, waiting for the gun
    to go off, and now it's going off," says the Rev. Ken Joseph, an
    Iraqi-American Christian activist in Baghdad. "For them to leave is a
    very big step, but that shows how badly people want to get out."

    It is difficult to gauge the exodus, because most Christian groups,
    desperately wanting Christians to stay, deny that there is any
    problem. (Iraq's new minister of displacement and migration, Pascale
    Isho Warda, was in Europe and unavailable for comment.) But Issaq
    Issaq, director of international relations for the Assyrian
    Democratic Movement, estimates that about 2,000 families have tried
    to leave since summer began. "They want to leave, because they heard
    they can get asylum in Australia," he says. "We are trying to keep
    these people in Iraq, because it is their country."

    In 1987, the Iraqi census showed about 1.4 million Christians. Then
    came Saddam Hussein's anfal ("spoils of war') campaign. In the late
    1980s, the army rampaged through the country's north, attacking
    ethnic Kurds and systematically destroying more than 100 small
    Christian villages, razing scores of ancient monasteries and churches
    and deporting thousands of Christian families to Baghdad.

    During the 1990s, a steady stream of Christians poured out of Iraq to
    Canada, Switzerland, Australia, and the United States - wherever they
    could get asylum. Today, fewer than 1 million remain in Iraq, divided
    among Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Armenians, and Syriac

    In this dwindling community, talk of persecution is taboo. Those who
    admit to it are accused of helping the terrorists. "Newspapers
    publish this kind of thing in order to make propaganda, and scare the
    Christians into leaving the country," says the priest at the Sacred
    Heart Catholic church in central Baghdad. He begged not to have his
    name published. But he swears there is no Muslim-Christian hostility.

    "We are brothers," says the priest, sweating inside the stifling
    rectory. "There is always this sympathy, and this tie of brotherhood
    between the Christians and the Muslims. Baghdad is considered a
    center of Christianity."

    Outside the church, under the punishing 120-degree sun, the priest's
    bodyguard laughs. "Don't believe what our father said," he says,
    pointing out a fresh bullet hole next to the rectory door and
    reciting a litany of recent death threats. "He can go anywhere he
    likes, he can leave the country if he wants to. But he is not
    thinking about us, the poor Christians. That's why he doesn't want me
    to talk to you frankly and openly about this.... There is an
    immigration bureau in Syria, and most of the Christians are going

    Ten minutes away, in the Bab Sharji market, Ahmed al-Maamouri scorns
    Christian claims of brotherhood.

    "I am unhappy about them, because Iraq is our country," says the
    young Muslim merchant. "They are like a white termite: They are
    eating the country from the inside. But if they hear a loud voice,
    they will keep quiet. The Christians are cowards - they are not going
    to fight."

    Attacks have increased. Saturday, Islamic militants in Mosul and
    Baquba blew up four liquor stores. Sunday, fanatics attacked a liquor
    store in downtown Baghdad, shouting "God is great" as they
    machine-gunned bottles of beer and wine and kidnapped an employee.

    Not all Christians are killed by Islamic militants. Issaq 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. On June 2, gangs
    kidnapped a young Christian storekeeper named Saher Faraj Mirkhai.
    Thinking he was rich, the gang demanded a ransom of $100,000. After
    selling their furniture, his 16-year-old truck, and the stock of his
    downtown Baghdad store, his family scraped together all the money
    they could find: about $13,500.

    After they paid, the family got a phone call from Saher's cellphone.
    "We asked for $100,000, and you paid this miserable amount of money,"
    said the voice, cursing them with foul language. The next day, police
    found Saher's body, pierced by over 30 bullets and severely

    Because of their religion, and the fact that many Christians speak
    English or have relatives abroad, there's also a widespread
    perception that Christians are pro-American.

    "There is a common ground between them and the Americans, so it was
    very easy for them to work with the Americans," says Khaled Abed, a
    Muslim street peddler who believes that "about 40 percent" of
    Christians work for occupation forces. "So you could say that the
    Christians used the current situation for their own benefit."

    Like many others, Mr. Maamouri, the Muslim merchant, sees Christians
    as sympathetic to the American occupiers. "When the Americans invaded
    Iraq, they thought God had delivered them," he says. "They think that
    this is their day."

    The peace between Christians and Muslims in Iraq, ever fragile, has
    always cracked in the crucible of national crisis. In 1931, as the
    British Empire handed over Iraq to a "sovereign" government of its
    choosing, the country's Assyrian Christian minority begged for a
    protected enclave or permission to migrate en masse. The British
    rejected both, offering them a deal instead: Assyrian soldiers could
    guard Britain's air bases inside Iraq.

    This illusory British "protection" proved fatal. In July 1933, a band
    of armed Assyrians tried to flee into neighboring Syria, and a border
    skirmish erupted. Iraqi authorities portrayed it as a full-blown
    insurrection by an Assyrian fifth column trying to bring back their
    imperialist protectors. That summer, Iraqi troops and armed Kurdish
    tribesmen led a massacre against Assyrians, culminating in the
    slaughter of hundreds of helpless Assyrian villagers on August 11. On
    their return to Baghdad, a cheering populace showered the troops with
    rose water and pelted them with flowers for their victory in crushing
    the Assyrian "revolt."

    Today, Assyrians are again asking for a protected province in the
    north, as well as money to fund a hotline and three safe houses for
    victims of anti-Christian crimes. "If we can get a zone in the north
    of Iraq, the rest of Iraq is going to go to hell, but we can be
    safe," says Mr. Joseph. "Otherwise, Chicago and San Diego and Detroit
    had better get ready for another flood of Assyrian refugees."

    About a month ago, a rumor tore through Baghdad's Christian
    community, half a million strong, that Australia had agreed to give
    Christians political asylum. Frantic asylum-seekers flooded passport
    offices and churches trying to get copies of their baptismal

    Salwan, who asked that his last name not be published, was one of
    them. On June 19, he took a $10 taxi from Baghdad to Damascus. The
    next morning, he went to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office
    on Maliki Street. On the sidewalk, hundreds of Iraqis waited in line.
    Most had slept there overnight, hoping to get in and register as

    Salwan, a moonfaced young businessman, had already camped out
    overnight on the pavement twice. Each time, the office closed before
    he reached the head of the line. This time, he talked his way to the
    head of the line and got his prize: an official UNHCR document noting
    that he is an Armenian Catholic and giving him six months to apply
    for refugee status.

    Now back in Baghdad, he says he loves Iraq, but he is hoping the UN
    will call him and tell him he can go to Australia: "Because of the
    situation, and because all my family is there, and because I cannot
    bear the life here anymore."