The effect of the war and occupation on Iraqi Christians

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, a fellow Iraqi Christian, describes in detail how the plight of Iraqi Christians has considerably worsened since the invasion of Iraq. I don't talk about it as much as I should. But being a Christian Iraqi that has a large amount of family still inside Iraq has been exceedingly difficult because it seems like the whole world is against us, pushing us out of our natural home. I missed this article of Ghaith's unfortunately, but I'll post it here for good measure. I promise to try to speak specifically to the matter in the future. But first and foremost I consider myself Iraqi and uncompromising in my concern for Iraq and its future. So, I urge all Iraqis--inside and outside of Iraq that feel that voting is in their best interest--to vote. Personally, because I feel like these elections will be hardly representative of ALL of Iraq and because the nearest polling place is so far away, I will not vote. Most of my family in Iraq will not vote. But I understand that there needs to be the beginning of learning how to participate in democratic elections, even if they are not democratic. And for this reason, if you feel so strongly about these elections that you must put your life at risk to vote (if you are inside Iraq), then I highly respect your wishes. As for those people outside of Iraq that are familiar with the democratic process that have decided to vote, I also respect your feelings...but frankly and for the most obvious reasons, they are not as important to me as those people whose lives are currently in constant danger simply because they are living the hell that has become Iraq. Therefore my own wishes for Iraq are not as important as somebody that is living inside Iraq and plans to stay there to sweat and bleed for Iraq's future. And I realize there are extreme exceptions like many who have left that were tortured and abused by Saddam's thugs who are understandably crying for joy at the prospect of participating in these elections. But what about those running Abu Ghraib now? Just because Saddam is not there anymore does not mean Iraqis should stop demanding justice. It is unacceptable how things have been handled and continue to be handled in this brutal occupation. It is one where the losses have been terrible on all sides. And yes, I've had a cousin kidnapped (and thankfully returned safely) and I've had friends go to Iraq that are Marines. I try to see as many perspectives regarding the invasion/occupation as possible. It is mentally exhausting, but necessary if I'm to feel right about myself and eventually live a normal life. And my life in the past couple years has been everything but normal. I'm almost there though. Anyway...to get back to the point.

There was a time shortly after the invasion, even as I was so angry and upset that it had taken place, when I dreamed of sweating and bleeding for Iraq and its future while staying inside Iraq. But exactly because of what Ghaith so eloquently describes in the following article, it is a dream that remains barely out of reach. Complicating things even further are the fact that I am an American that is still vociferously against this war and occupation. I hope the dream doesn't remain out of reach for much longer. Because I am still waiting to help Iraq in the hands-on manner inside Iraq when the time is right. Until then you will find me online and behind the scenes. Here is Ghaith now:

Bleeding the weak

Without political power or tribal muscle, Iraq's Christians have become ideal victims for gangsters and extremists. Many are now fleeing the country, says Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Monday January 3, 2005
The Guardian

Yaqub Moussa sits in his liquor shop in Baghdad. One hand is hidden under the counter holding a black pistol, the other taps nervously on the surface. "People from the Hawza [the Shiite religious authority] come here every month; they take $100 from me every time. If I don't pay they say they will burn my shop because I am breaking the sharia Islamic law."

He looks at a teenage boy wearing a baseball hat and standing a few feet away from him. "Once I told them, 'I don't have any money and can't pay any more.' Next day my son was kidnapped and I had to pay them $500 to release him. This time I am going to kill anyone who touches my son."

What started as a campaign by religious extremists to impose sharia law in Baghdad and Iraq's other main cities, by attacking liquor shops, hairdressing parlours and music stores, has turned into a very lucrative mafia-style protection business.

Yaqub Moussa's shop is in Karrada, a prosperous neighbourhood of Baghdad, where Christians, Jews and Shiite Muslims have lived for centuries in an atmosphere of harmony. Fifty years ago the Jews were the first to feel religious tolerance dry up; most left for the new state of Israel in the 50s. Today, it is Christians who are feeling the pressure, which is forcing many of them to consider leaving too.

A few streets away from Moussa's establishment, in front of another liquor shop whose window frontage is completely covered by protective metal sheeting, stands a man with a badly tailored brown suit, a white shirt and a thin, neatly trimmed beard. Keeping his back to the shop, he scans the street.

Inside, another man, also in a badly tailored brown suit, but with a thicker beard and a big ring on his finger, stands in front of the counter questioning the son of the owner. "Where is your father?" he asks, in the tone of voice that used to be employed by Saddam's security police. "Call him, we have to talk to him."

"He is out, can I take a message?"

The frightened son is taken outside for a further talking-to, before the two men leave in a big white government SUV.

"They are from the security service of the Dawa party [one of the strongest Shiite religious parties]," the young man explains. "They come here every few weeks and we pay them. They are nice to us, they don't threaten to use force, but we know if we don't pay this place will be bombed the next day."

Christians in Iraq are divided into more than a dozen ethnicities and sects. Of the ethnic groups that exist within the country's borders today, the Chaldeans and the Syriacs are considered to be the oldest inhabitants. Joined by Assyrians, Armenians and Arab Christians they make up around 1.5% of the population, centred in Baghdad and the northern regions around Mosul, Dohuk and Kirkuk. Most of these groups are then divided between the Orthodox eastern church and the Roman Catholic church, but even the Presbyterian protestants have followers in Iraq.

Throughout Iraq's modern history, there has been little or no direct religious oppression of Christians, according to Father Bashar Wardeh, a priest in the Catholic Chaldean church in Baghdad and a teacher at the Babel Liturgical college. He argues that, unlike the Shiites and the Kurds, who opposed the ethnic-sectarian policies of the Ba'athist regime militarily and politically, the Christians never had political ambitions and so were tolerated by the regime.

Things started to change after the American led war of March 2003 that toppled the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein. As chaos replaced dictatorship and oppression in Iraqi society, currents of religious fundamentalism - whether in the form of extreme Sunni Wahhabi militancy aimed at annihilating the "infidel", or attempts by Shiite clergy to impose a sharia ethical code - have been proving stronger than secularism. In this anarchic atmosphere, tribe, sect and ethnicity have become the natural shelters for people who feel that the state is unable to provide security for its citizens. As the Christians have no strong political or tribal weight, they have come to be perceived as the weakest element in the society.

"The Christian man will know who attacked him," says Father Wardeh, "but because there is no law to protect him and no tribe to go and take revenge for him, he will thank God for the loss and keep going."

In the office of one Christian political party - which agreed to an interview on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from Islamist extremists - more than a dozen young Christian men have been brought from their villages in the north to protect a party official. He sits in a dilapidated room in a former Ba'ath party office. "With the disappearance of the state, the tribal and ethnic elements became the major forces, which leads to government in which every post is awarded on a sectarian basis," he says. "The Christian citizen knows that the only way to participate in the process of rebuilding the country is to be adopted by this political party or that."

Many Christians find themselves obliged to affiliate with Islamic religious parties or tribes to get a degree of protection. After having a car crash, for instance, Sami Mansour, 57, a Christian taxi driver, sought the help of a local Shiite tribal council to solve the dispute. "When the other driver realised I was a Christian, he demanded not only that I should pay for the car repair but also that I should pay the tribal fine," he says. "I then went to a tribal council which agreed to talk on my behalf as one of their 'sons' and the other driver withdrew his claims."

Christians have seen their numbers falling dramatically in the past two years. In fact, they have been leaving Iraq in numbers since the mid-1990s. With the heavy impact of United Nations sanctions against the Ba'ath regime in power at that time, thousands of Iraqis began to flee. The Christians felt this pressure doubly: partly from the sanctions and partly from the resulting "Islamisation" of society. But a new wave of emigration has taken place in recent months, especially after a bombing campaign that began in August, targeting churches in Baghdad and Mosul.

In his house in a poor neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad, empty apart from couple of sofas and a plastic picnic table and chairs, Moris Illyas sits with his family to have their last Sunday meal in Iraq.

"There is no security here, a Muslim child can insult a Christian man and no one of us can say anything," Illyas says. He points to his 12-year-old daughter: "I stopped her from going to school. I used to take her to the school, wait outside for hours and then take her back. I can't stand that pressure any more."

Fear of verbal and physical intimidation caused his wife, Jaclin Shamir, to begin wearing hijab, covering her hair whenever she leaves the house to give her the look of a Muslim woman. "I have had to change my whole life. I now wear a scarf most of the time." Holding a golden crucifix in her hands, she says, "I hide this under my clothes now. It's like living in Rome in the early days of Christianity."

According to many priests, the numbers of churchgoers has fallen by more than half, and Sunday evening mass has had to be shifted to the afternoon because of security fears. Midnight Christmas masses were cancelled this year.

But Father Wardeh, whose church in eastern Baghdad is among those bombed, has refused to barricade the building with concrete blast walls or sandbags. "This is a house of God, and God shall protect it," he said as he watched the church's only guard patrolling the yard, an old man with a rusted Kalashnikov.


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