Iraq's Beleaguered Christians More Fearful Than Ever

August 2, 2004 - 7:15 PM

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - A spate of coordinated car bombings at churches in Iraq has shaken a Christian minority already deeply anxious about its future.

An Assyrian campaigner Monday predicted that the steady flow of Christians leaving Iraq would swell to a flood in the aftermath of Sunday's bombings, which killed at least 11 people.

Five churches in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul were targeted in the blasts, evidently timed to cause maximum casualties during evening services. Scores of people were injured and the number of fatalities was expected to rise.

The carnage was the worst faced by Iraqi Christians since the fall of Saddam Hussein, but this was not the first violence to target the community of between 700,000 and 1.5 million people.

Iraqi Christians are mostly Assyrians (sometimes called Syriacs or Chaldeans), a non-Arab ethnic group that pre-dated the 7th century Muslim-Arab conquests of the Middle East.

Traditional Assyrian lands include parts of Iraq, southeast Turkey, Syria and northern Iran, although they enjoy no autonomy despite claiming a history that goes back to the 8th century BC.

Today's main Christian denominations include Chaldean Catholic, Assyrian, Syrian Orthodox and Armenian.

A number of news reports have characterized life for Christians under Saddam as tranquil.

But according to Prof. Walid Phares, an expert on Christian minorities in the Middle East, oppression of Assyrian Christians increased after the Ba'athists seized power in Iraq.

A report by the U.S.-based Chaldean News Agency a year before the war that toppled Saddam described anti-Christian discrimination on the part of former regime.

They included regulations forbidding Iraqis from giving newborn children any names other than Arab ones; a decision to place all church properties under the control of the government Ministry of Islamic Property; and a ruling that Christian churches publishing religious calendars had to include saying of Saddam alongside those of Jesus.

Hermiz Shahen, an Australian-based representative of the Assyrian Universal Alliance, an international umbrella group, said Monday the Ba'athist regime deliberately classified Assyrians as Arabs.

That was one reason why estimates of the size of the community vary so much, he said.

Saddam's government razed hundreds of Assyrian villages in an attempt to assimilate the minority into Arab society.

In the north, Assyrians also faced discrimination at the hands of the Kurds, who Shahen said had taken over "where Saddam failed."

'Hatred'

Shahen said Assyrians had in general welcomed the liberation of Iraq and Saddam's departure.

But maltreatment under the secular regime's "Arabization" policies has been replaced since the fall of Baghdad by attacks motivated by religious zealotry.

Many Iraqi Muslim associated Assyrians with the West, and therefore saw them as the enemy. "Hatred is now twice [as bad] as it was before."

Islamist organizations in Saudi Arabia were also known to have "invested lots of money to Islamize the Assyrian lands," he said.

Christian charities, aid organizations and campaigning groups have recorded a number of attacks targeting Christians over the past year.

Two weeks ago, Hani Matti Betti, the Christian owner of a restaurant in Mosul, was murdered, reportedly after being accused of serving Americans. The militants blinded and cut off the hands of his business partner, a Muslim.

On June 26, the sister of a Catholic priest in Mosul was injured when two men threw a hand grenade from their passing car towards the church.

On June 7, seven people were killed in two drive-by shootings apparently targeting Christians in an Assyrian district in Baghdad.

In February, five Christian roadside vendors were shot dead by gunmen in Basra, and last Christmas Eve, a Christian was shot dead while doing last-minute shopping in the same city.

On a number of occasions, bombs have either gone off in churches without hurting anybody, or have been found and defused before detonation. Offices and representatives of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian party, have been shot at or otherwise targeted for attack.

Apart from those and other attacks, Christians have also faced numerous threats.

Posters have been pasted in the north warning Christians to covert to Islam or leave Iraq. Priests and lay Christians have been threatened with death or kidnapping.

One warning notice, which has been posted on an Assyrian website, instructs a Christian family to convert and for the women and girls to wear the hijab (Islamic veil). Disobedience would result in death and the destruction of their home.

In Baghdad, Assyrian owners of liquor stores have been ordered to close or be killed.

Last April, when coalition forces were besieging the terrorist stronghold of Fallujah, a militant group sent the al-Arabiya television channel a faxed warning that it would kill priests and other Christians and destroy churches unless the siege ended.

In Basra, members of the Christian community have been terrorized by Shi'a groups including one named "Allah's Vengeance" which are trying to force Christians to convert or leave.

'Looking to the West'

According to Shahen, hundreds of Assyrian families fearful for their safety were already leaving Iraq each week, mostly heading for Syria or Jordan.

With the latest bombings, he expected the figures to rise dramatically.

"A huge number have left already and this incident will encourage others to leave. We don't want that to happen. This is our homeland."

Shahen said many Assyrians in Iraq looked to those in the diaspora - most live in the U.S., Australia and northern Europe - as their only hope. It was up to diaspora Assyrians to lobby governments on behalf of the homeland.

"There is a plan, there is some plot to remove the Christians from Iraq. And we've been asking [Western] governments to do something about it," said Shahen, who has lobbied Australian leaders, and also met with former U.S. Iraq administrator Paul Bremer in Baghdad earlier this year.

He noted that President Bush had mentioned Assyrians by name in his statements falling the fall of Baghdad.

In a April 2003 address in Dearborn, Mich., the president assured Iraqis they would enjoy a future where all would be free to practice their faith: "Whether you're Sunni or Shi'a or Kurd or Chaldean or Assyrian or Turkoman or Christian or Jew or Muslim, no matter what your faith, freedom is God's gift to every person in every nation."

"If the allies are talking about bringing Iraq to democracy, they have to somehow implement that," Shahen said, adding that the task would have to include finding a way "to protect the Christian community."

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