Middle East Media Research Institute, DC
Inquiry and Analysis Series - No. 213
March 21 2005

The Plight of Iraqi Christians

By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*

The kidnapping of Archbishop Basil Georges Casmoussa on January 17,
2005 in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and his subsequent release
the following day, highlighted the plight of Iraqi Christians, like
other Iraqi communities, facing threats from Islamist terrorists bent
on plunging Iraq into ethnic conflict.

Deep Roots and Current Violence
The Iraqi daily Al-Mada recently carried a report about the ruins of
what is believed to be the oldest Eastern Christian church,
discovered in 1976 by an archeological team in the desert west of the
holy Shi'ite city of Karbala. The church, known as Al-Qusair Church,
was built in the 5th century, 120 years before the appearance of
Islam and almost two centuries before the spread of Islam in what is
known today as Iraq.

The church (53x13 feet) had fifteen arched doors. Inside
archeologists found remnants of an altar and gammadion crosses. There
were two small cemeteries, one within the church walls intended for
the priests and one outside the walls for other church members.

During the Saddam regime, the eastern side of the church was
converted into a training target for an artillery unit of the Iraqi
army. A number of unexploded shells have been found within the
church's perimeter. After the fall of Saddam, the tombs were
desecrated by looters, who hoped to find gold buried with the dead.
The Iraqi Department of Antiquities has recognized the historical
significance of the church, and restoration and preservation are
being considered. [1]

The Iraqi Christians
Iraqi Christians represent three percent of the Iraqi population
(which is estimated at 26 million). [2] The overwhelming majority of
Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church - the Iraqi
branch of Roman Catholicism. Chaldean Catholics are also known as
"Assyrians." The patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church has
clarified that "Assyrian" is an ethnic identity and "Chaldean" is a
religious one. [3] There are other churches in Iraq, including the
Roman Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Nestorian and Armenian. However,
the distinction between these churches is not really understood by
most Iraqi Muslims, who look upon all Christians as "People of the
Book," as they are referred to in the Koran.

Under the secular Ba'th regime, the Christians in Iraq, who presented
no threat to Saddam, enjoyed considerable religious freedom. In an
interview with the Arabic-language London daily Al-Hayat, the Latin
Patriarch in Iraq, Jan Suleiman, said that whenever Saddam Hussein
was approached regarding a problem affecting the Christian education
system in Iraq, he would intervene to resolve it. [4]

Violence Against Individuals
The high level of violence in Iraq has affected every sector of the
Iraqi population, and Christians are no exception. Christians,
however, have been specifically targeted by Islamists, who either
accuse them of collaborating with the "invading crusading army" or
label them infidels. As Islamist pressures mounted in Iraq, following
its occupation, Christian businesses were destroyed, Christian
university students were harassed and Christian women were forced to
wear the veil. [5]

Suspected of Collaboration
Most Christian children attend Christian schools, where the teaching
of a foreign language, primarily English, is a high priority in the
curriculum. It is therefore understandable that the multinational
forces have tapped the Christian community for office and translation
work. However, the Christians are concerned that a prolonged
occupation of Iraq by the multinational forces under the command of
the United States will only heighten the accusations that they are
collaborating with an occupation "originating from a Christian
country." [6]

Recently, the unidentified "Brigades for the Liquidation of Christian
Agents and Spies" has threatened to liquidate those working with the
multinational forces and to "pursue them in their homes and
churches." In placards posted in Christian areas, the Brigades wrote:

"The Christian minority enjoys peace and security in the land of the
Muslim and in our country in particular. Its members have held senior
positions in the State. But their malevolence toward Muslims became
evident when the occupier entered our country. He found great support
among them in the form of translators and agents who acted as
informers against Muslims. Their churches receive evangelist groups.
They spread moral corruption and pornography in our streets. Muslims
have been arrested, women raped and houses destroyed as a result of
Christians being agents of the occupiers." [7]

Violence Against Churches
In August 2004, five churches, one in Baghdad and four in Mosul, were
hit in one day, in a coordinated attack that killed 12 people. In
October, five churches in Baghdad were hit on the first day of the
Muslim month of Ramadan. In November, eight people were killed in two
church bombings. [8] The August attack on churches was followed on
September 10 by mortar attacks against the Assyrian town in Bakhdeda
(also referred to as Qarqosh ) in the Ninevah Governorate in northern
Iraq. [9]

The Destruction of Businesses
With the public sector and the military all but closed to them,
Christians have focused on the services sector of the economy and
retail business. Because of Islamic restrictions on alcohol
consumption, Iraqi governments have limited the liquor retail
business to Christians, who, in turn, have been meeting an obviously
high demand for alcoholic beverages among a large segment of the
Iraqi Muslim population. In fact, a considerable amount of money
under the "Oil for Food Program" was used by the Saddam regime for
the import of the most expensive brands of alcoholic beverages for
Saddam Hussein, his sons, and the high echelons of the secular Ba'th
ruling party. At one time, the Coalition Provisional Authority was
contemplating a public auction of high quality vintage wine and
champagne found in the cellars of the palaces of Saddam, his sons,
and their cronies.

Shortly after the fall of Saddam, Islamists, who took control of the
streets of many Iraqi cities, began to target Christian owners of
liquor stores. They first ordered the owners to close their
businesses; if the owners failed to comply, the Islamists gutted the
stores and often killed the owners. An example is liquor merchant
Bashir Toma Alias, who was shot in the head in the center of a bazaar
in Basra while on his way home to celebrate Christmas. [10]

Writing about the "deplorable attack against Chaldean Christians in
Iraq," the Chaldean New Agency wrote on October 7, 2004:

"Not only did those heinous crimes result in the loss of innocent
lives, but worse, they have created tremendous hardships for those
Chaldean families whose very livelihood were attacked. With a lack of
alternative jobs, many of them are currently living off the
charitable contributions of the local Chaldean churches." [11]

The report goes on to warn that unless these "Islamic terrorists" are
brought to justice, "Iraqi Chaldeans will continue to be an easy
target for such criminals who are bent on imposing their distorted
version of Islam by force." [12] It was reported that in the southern
city of Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, armed Shi'ite groups
with names such as "The Revenge of Allah," "Hizbullah," and "The
Organization of Islamic Doctrines," roam the streets to mete out
"Islamic punishment" on traders and users of alcohol, as well as on
prostitutes. Four hundred Christian stores were closed. According to
Faysal Abdullah, the head of the Organization of Islamic Doctrines,
Islam "rewards those who seek martyrdom and who were designated by
Allah to uproot vice." [13]

Often the police stand idly by in the face of crimes committed in
their presence because they are afraid of the armed Islamists or
because they sympathize with their aims.

The Christians complain that after they were driven out of the liquor
business by Islamist groups, Muslims have taken over the business and
continue to sell liquor publicly. [14]

The Islamists have also targeted barber shops run by Christians
because the Islamists object to haircuts and to shaving. [15]

Harassment of Students
Christian students at Iraqi universities are also subjected to
harassment and often to violence. At the University of Mosul, the
second largest university in Iraq, 1,500 Christian students recently
decided to suspend their studies because of threats to their lives by
Islamists who have taken control of the university. [16] Because many
of these students traveled to campus in buses from outside the city,
they were afraid that their transportation would be bombed if they
persisted in attending the university. [17]

A survey among Christian students carried out by the Iraqi daily
Al-Mada has found similar sentiments among Christian students
attending other institutions of higher learning in Iraq. They do not
understand why they are being victimized. Anna Mirfit Boutrus, a
22-year-old student at the Technological University of Baghdad,
expressed her distress:

"Why do the terrorists want to prevent us from performing our
religious rites? Why do they bomb our churches? Why do they want to
kill us~E What have we done to them? We are citizens of this land.
This is our country. We will not give it up and we will not replace
it with another." [18]

For female Christian students, there is incessant pressure to wear
the veil or put their lives in jeopardy. [19]

Christmas Celebrations
Christians celebrated Christmas in their homes, for fear of attacks.
Most churches avoided the traditional midnight Mass or large
gatherings of church goers. [20] Indeed, the churches called upon
their parishioners to avoid coming to churches on Christmas out of
concern for their safety. [21] Asked to comment on the situation on
the eve of Christmas, Patriarch Emanuel III, the Patriarch of
Babylon, responded:

"As leaders of the Christian communities in Iraq, we are pained by
what has happened to our country. There is destruction of our people,
resources, buildings and churches. We grieve the tragic death of many
of our children and the injuries and psychological shocks suffered by
others. Many of our citizens were subject to humiliating kidnapping,
thefts, and expulsion." [22]

Sister Warda of the Daughters of Mary Convent commented that the
cancellation of Christmas celebrations must be viewed in perspective.
She said: "We cannot celebrate in isolation of what our relatives and
brothers are subjected to in our wounded country." [23]

Conversion to Islam
Chaldeans also complain about pressures to convert to Islam. When a
parent converts to Islam all minors in the family are forcefully
converted regardless of the wishes of the other parent. [24]

Leaving the Country
The plight of Iraqi Christians is part of a rapidly deteriorating
situation that is forcing Christians throughout the Middle East to
seek refuge in the West. A recent article by Majid Aziza in the Iraqi
daily Al-Zaman, a newspaper with a long-standing liberal pedigree,
highlights the plight of Christians in the Arab and Muslim world:

"Christian natives of Arab countries are escaping their countries of
origin. Statistics show that a large number of them have emigrated to
countries which offer them and their children greater security, such
as the United States, Canada, Australia and some European countries.
The reason is the harassment to which they are subjected in countries
they have inhabited for thousands of years. Sometimes the harassment
originates from the regime; at other times it comes from extremist

Saddam and the Iraqi Christians
On the one hand, Saddam Hussein supported Christian education; on the
other, he forced Christians out of their villages in the north as
part of the Arabization of Kirkuk and its environs. Many other
Christians opted to leave their villages in the north because of the
unsettled conflict between the Kurds and Saddam's regime. Now
harassment by Islamists is forcing these transplants to return to the
villages of their ancestors in the north. In the words of one person
who plans to relocate: "Some of the Muslims consider us infidels. We
are being targeted. They will eat us alive." [25] For Christians who
have left Iraq, Syria remains the preferred country for temporary
residence for two reasons: first, no visa is required and second, it
provides security at a low cost of living. [26] Jordan is another
country populated by a large number of Iraqi Christians.

Voting in the Elections
In a meeting with a Christian delegation, Grand Ayatollah Ali
al-Sistani denounced the attacks on the churches and called upon
Christians to participate in the elections to ensure maximum
participation. [27] Al-Sistani has also been quoted as saying that he
would have no objection for a Christian to be elected president of
Iraq if he met the appropriate qualifications. [28]

There were no fewer than eight Christian parties that competed in the
January 30 elections. The Christians were determined to vote because
they believed an elected government would provide them with a measure
of security they now lacked. They also counted on massive
participation of Iraqi Christians in the Diaspora to vote for their
parties. [29] The low rate of participation in the elections of
Iraqis in exile must have been disappointing to the Christians.

In the elections, one Christian party, the National Rafidain,
received approximately 37,000 votes, entitling it to one seat in the
275-seat assembly.

The low turnout of the Christian voters was involuntary. Many of the
Christians live in Sunni provinces, particularly in Ninevah and
Salahudin in the so-called Sunni triangle. Tens of thousands of
Christians who intended to vote discovered on election day that the
Independent Elections Committee did not provide ballot boxes in these
two provinces because of security concerns. Christians complained
that tens of thousands of their community were in essence
disenfranchised, particularly in the city of Mosul, for no fault of
their own. Many others may have sought the security of their homes
rather than risk violence while going out to vote. [30]

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East
Economic Studies Program.