Visiting Iraqi Christians tell exiles to stay strong

sviraq-420×01.jpgJulie Szego
IRAQI Christians George Eshaq and Romel Moshi bring a message of stubborn optimism to their exiled compatriots in Australia. “We tell them, ‘Keep your connection with your people back in Iraq’,” Mr Moshi says. “We hope and believe Iraq will be peaceful one day … and maybe then you can come back.”

The two members of Iraq’s Assyrian Democratic Movement — a party representing the country’s Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic minorities that holds seats in the federal parliament — know they face an uphill battle selling this line. Despite their tiny numbers, since Saddam’s fall Iraqi Christians have found themselves at the front line of the battle for Iraq’s soul.

Their religion makes them an easy target for Islamist fanatics, while insurgents have tended to single them out as “collaborators” with the US military. It is estimated that since the US-led war almost half of Iraq’s 1 million or so Christians have been forced to flee, with hundreds of thousands stranded in Syria and Jordan. Australia recently announced it would lift its refugee intake by 500 in the coming year and leaders from Melbourne’s Assyrian community, such as Wilson Kando and Valentine Aghajani, believe their people stand to benefit.

Emissaries Moshi and Eshaq are in Melbourne to rally distant supporters — their party scored about 8000 votes in the 2005 Iraqi elections from Australian expatriates — and feast at places such as the Babylonian-themed Aghadeer restaurant in Brunswick.

“Their position is not to encourage the Assyrian and Chaldean community to leave Iraq,” Mr Kando says. “But our people are stuck in Syria and Jordan for years, our children have sacrificed their education, our women have been forced into prostitution.”

Mr Moshi and Mr Eshaq have themselves endured a rocky journey, which began in the 1990s when they joined forces with Kurdish reformers in the semi-autonomous north. After Saddam’s fall in 2003 they joined a Christian militia and patrolled a country descending into anarchy. Eventually they reached Baghdad where their comrades had occupied the former headquarters of Saddam’s notorious paramilitary group, the Fedayeen. They bunkered down as shadowy forces picked off Christian and civil society leaders. Catholic clerics were murdered, along with many Assyrian Democratic Movement activists.

Mr Eshaq, who still lives in the movement’s Baghdad headquarters, says of the recent drop in violence that has followed the “surge” of US troops: “A few months ago we never left the base. Now we go out until the evening; in the shops, in town, there’s more freedom now, more safety.” Mr Moshi says there’s also fresh hope for national reconciliation since the Iraqi Government launched a military campaign in March against radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. “The Sunni minority began to change then, they felt encouraged.” The two want US troops to stay for as long as the Iraqi army and police force need backing.

But what of their movement’s aim of building a secular, democratic Iraq that safeguards minority rights? “It’s very difficult,” Mr Moshi concedes. Says Mr Eshaq: “We believe the only thing that will change the minds of religious people to be secular is economic progress. It’s very easy for someone who doesn’t feel like they lead a comfortable life to kill and be killed