Group urges aid for persecuted Iraqi Christians

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Jennifer Green, The Ottawa Citizen

OTTAWA – So many Iraqi Christians have been kidnapped, murdered and driven from their homes that an advocacy group is urging Canada to rescue them and let them relocate here as refugees.

“Canada turned away a boat full of Jewish refugees in the Second World War,” said Rev. Majed El Shafie of One Free World International. “We can’t have that on our national conscience again.”

In the escalating persecution, a Catholic archbishop was kidnapped and later found dead, 10 Iraqi Christian churches have been bombed, and 2,000 families were forced to flee from Baghdad’s Dora neighbourhood after a fatwa called for their conversion or death.

Christian refugees speak of friends and relatives decapitated, the head deposited at the front door. Bodies are dumped on the street, but bereaved families won’t go out to collect them, for fear of being killed themselves.

Christians make up only three per cent of the Iraqi population, or about 1.3 million, but so many have fled that they account for half of Iraqi refugees, often leaving with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Insurgents move in and take over their houses and possessions.

Once out of Iraq, they face a dismal Catch-22: Muslim countries suspect them of collaborating with coalition forces, and Washington is reluctant to help, suspecting them of terrorism. France recently agreed to take 500 Iraqi Christians, since nobody else would. Canada will accept about 2,000 Iraqi refugees this year, up from 900 in 2007, but it is not making any special provision for Christians.

Pharmacist Salem Yousef left his highly paid job, upper-class home, and investment properties to escape Baghdad, going to Syria, and then Canada, which has accepted him as a refugee. Now, he will begin bringing his wife and two sons, 11, and 13, from Syria.

“Saddam Hussein was not a good man, but not very bad either,” the Syriac Orthodox Christian said in an interview from Toronto.

“At that time, we could keep our jobs and homes. Now I have to run away and leave everything.”
Mr. Yousef said the pressure started about five years ago when neighbours and workmates pressured his wife to wear a veil, longer clothing and no makeup. She went along, but it wasn’t enough. She closed the pharmacy she owned for fear she would be bombed as the adjoining shop had been, a Christian-owned store that sold women’s underwear and make-up.

Eventually, she stayed in her house, afraid to answer the door, in case she or the children would be kidnapped. Finally, she and the children went to Syria, while Mr. Yousef stayed behind to earn a living. His workmates told him they would give him a better job if he converted, and they made it clear “it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“After that, I became afraid of each and every thing. It was even difficult for me to fall asleep in my own house, so I sometimes left to sleep at my relatives’ and sister’s houses and I stopped going out as much as possible. I even stopped going to work in the regular manner, changing my time of arrival and departure from the office frequently, and my route to and from the office as well.

On Sept. 14, 2006, he got a death threat, and three days later he left by bus for Syria. Finding no work there, he came to Canada and made the refugee claim here.

Tim Vail, spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, said the government has no plans to single out any religious group for special treatment. It relies on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to recommend which people are most in need.