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Terrorised Iraqi Christians face stark choice: flee or die
Sunday’s fatal attack on a Syrian Catholic Church in downtown Baghdad has accentuated pressure on Iraq’s Christian community, which lives in a climate of permanent insecurity.
Blood-stained glasses and shoes litter the floor, statues and benches lie knocked around, and bullet holes puncture the doors of Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation), Baghdad's landmark Syrian Catholic Church, which was attacked Sunday by al Qaeda-linked gunmen.
In the middle of mass, insurgents stormed the church, which is located in the Karrada neighbourhood in downtown Baghdad, and proceeded to take three priests and fifty worshippers hostage. Fifty-two police officers and civilians died, and more than 60 people were injured, in the assault carried out by Iraqi police – backed by US forces – to liberate the hostages.
“The church is ruined, there’s nothing left standing, nothing is in place,” Pascale Warda, spokesperson for the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation in Baghdad, told France24.com. “It’s the apocalypse,” she said, after visiting the site of the attack early on Monday.
Warda, who is Christian, usually attends the church’s Sunday service herself. Miraculously, she did not go last Sunday.
A chronic security problem
According to Warda, the situation for Christians in Iraq has improved slightly over the past year. “People were coming back to mass, churches reopened, more catechism classes were being offered,” she said.
But Iraqi Christians still live under a persistent threat of violence. Many of them have fled the country since the beginning of the US invasion in 2003, as priests have been killed and there have been several attacks on churches.
It is not a new phenomenon, explained Odon Vallet, a French historian specialised in world religions. Vallet says violence has been committed against Iraqi Christians since the 1920s. “Since then, tens of thousands of them have been persecuted, before being relatively protected under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, whose deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz was Christian,” Vallet explained. “But with the two Gulf wars, persecution got worse than ever.”
The issue of the plight of Iraq’s Christian communities was raised at a summit devoted to Christians in the Middle East in October. A high-ranking Iraqi clergyman at the meeting called upon the international community to put pressure on the Iraqi government to protect Christians from a possible massacre.
‘Suitcase or coffin’
The constant threat of violence that looms over Iraqi Christians has driven a growing number of them to flee the country. According to Vallet, the number of Christians in Iraq has been divided in half over the last 20 years, leaving only about 500,000 still there today.
“The Christians of Iraq have the choice between a suitcase and a coffin. Either they stay and risk being killed, or they leave, generally for the United States or Europe,” Vallet explained. “We’re slowly moving towards the extinction of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.”
To put an end to the trend and ensure the security of the remaining Iraqi Christians, Pascale Warda called on the Iraqi government to take efficient and “serious” measures. “The protection of churches and Catholic schools today is only symbolic,” she said indignantly.
Despite the risks her community is encountering, Warda does not plan to avoid prayer time at Baghdad, nor does she plan to leave her country. As she said: “We have always been forced to face challenges.”