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Easter with Iraqi Christians

Latest update : 2008-03-19

After the kidnapping and assassination of Archbishop Paulus Faraj Rahho, Iraq’s Christians are preparing for an Easter of “sadness and discretion” as they continue to struggle, five years after the US invasion.

Ever since the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, Christians have been victims of all sorts of violence, just like Iraq’s other religious communities. On the ground, this means assassinations, kidnappings, attacks on churches and businesses. As the only people authorized to sell alcohol, some Christians have received threats to close their stores or risk having it burned down or worse – putting themselves or their families in danger.

“My neighbor, who has a license to sell alcohol, was kidnapped. His kidnappers killed him right away, but then they dressed up the body, and demanded a ransom of several thousand dollars from his family. They finally delivered the corpse,” recounts Karim H., a refugee in Beirut.

“His family, who were forced to go into debt to pay the ransom, were eventually forced to flee the country,” he explains.

The culprits are difficult to identify due to the large number of armed groups operating the in country – both affiliated with al Qaeda and independent ‘mercenaries.’

Despite the fact that the numbers of refugees are very political and should be treated with caution, experts who track refugee patterns estimate that tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq since 2003.

Lebanon - along with Syria, Jordan, Sweden, and the Netherlands - has been a popular destination for Iraqi Christians.

Death threats and pressure to convert


Zora left Baghdad for Beirut in the midst of catastrophe. A translator for an American studies department in Baghdad, she had been receiving death threats.

“They wrote on the walls of my house ‘Infidel, we’re coming for you,’” she remembers, wishing to remain anonymous as her family continues to live in Baghdad.

Unlike Syria and Jordan, where refugees are tolerated, in Lebanon, they are illegal.

“I preferred braving the ban in coming here because it’s the only Arab country where Christians still have power,” says the young woman.

Constrained by social pressures as they go about their lives in Iraq, Christians complain about the pressure they are under to convert to Islam, to wear a veil, or even to stop wearing jeans in certain mixed communities.

“Some armed people informed us that if we wanted to stay in the community, we would have to convert,” said Sami K., another refugee living in Beirut with his family. “They also threatened to take my wife, a university professor, who dares to go out without covering her hair,” added the father of three.

Arrested after arriving in Lebanon, he was imprisoned for several months. “I opted to bring my wife and children, even though I knew I risked being arrested.”

Iraqi Kurdistan, land of asylum?

Samira Youssouf is a refugee in Paris. It’s a strange destination for a Christian Iraqi – but better than staying in Iraq, she says.

“The poorest and oldest stay in Iraq,” she explains, “Most of them end up in the north, in Mosul, Kirkuk, Erbil, and other provinces in Iraqi Kurdistan, which are safer than Basra or Baghdad.”

These regions, however, remain dangerous themselves. “The kidnapping and assassination of the Archbishop of Mosul while he was leaving his church proves it,” Samira says. “Even in these regions, it’s impossible to live normally,” she added, citing the example of a friend who was forced to wed in secret.

“People are stuck in a closed room. The party goes on for about two hours, then everyone has to go home for reasons of security. It was only 2pm.”

Even though they made up some 20% of the population in the 1930s, Iraqi Christians represented only about 3% (about 800,000 people) in 1998, according to Michel Kassarji, the Chaldean Archbishop of Lebanon. “Today, we don’t have precise figures, but we believe that the number has fallen to 1%,” he adds. The Chaldeans, who make up the majority of Iraqi Christians, are considered to be one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

Help the Christians, discreetly

What can be done for the Christians? “It is time that the West in general, and Europe in particular, reacts quickly to protect Iraq’s Christians,” says Kassarji. “If the war goes on, there is no doubt, the country will lose all its Christians. Energetic measures must be undertaken to assure their future,” he adds. “We have to remember that they don’t have arms. They don’t have militias either. They don’t have any protection.”

For those who have no other choice but to leave, “they must be helped with discretion. To publicly declare that visas are being preferentially issued to Christians could put them in danger,” says Samira Youssouf.

“After the recent events, notably the assassination of the Archbishop of Mosul during Lent, Easter should be celebrated with sadness and discretion,” Youssouf concludes.

Date created : 2008-03-19

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