By Agence France Presse (AFP)
BAGHDAD: “For the sake of our country, that life may return to Iraq and all its sons enjoy safety, peace and stability, amen.” With this nervous prayer of hope, 59 Iraqi boys and girls became full members of Baghdad’s dwindling Christian flock.
Dressed in habits like novice monks and nuns, the youngsters came to the Our Lady of Salvation church to take first communion, a rare sight in a city where their minority is keeping an increasingly low profile.
As proud parents looked on, the latest generation of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities prayed for an end to the bitter civil war that threatens to drive them from their ancestral homeland.
“I prayed to God to keep my mom and dad and all the family safe. I asked Jesus Christ to keep everyone safe,” said 11-year-old Rita Sabah, as her brother Youssef nodded and said: “Amen.” Their playmate Matti had an even heavier burden to bear.
“I prayed that Jesus returns my father safe,” he said. Nine months ago, Matti’s dad was kidnapped by one of the many gangs that roam Baghdad. He has not been heard from since.
“O Christians, do not fret over the threats of the evil-doers,” intoned Archbishop Athanase Matti Matoka of the Syrian Catholic Church.
“Christians ought not to fear challenges as Jesus said: ‘I am with you until doomsday’,” he told the congregation. “Our Christian people are suffering from persecution in parts of Baghdad and some other cities,” he lamented.
Before the US-led invasion of March 2003, there were thought to be around 800,000 Christians in Iraq, around three percent of the otherwise largely Muslim population, living mainly in urban centers such as Baghdad.
However, perceived perhaps unfairly to be wealthy, many Christians fell prey to kidnap and ransom gangs and many – probably more than half – of them have fled the country or moved to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Now, as the war rages on into a fifth year, views have hardened and some Muslim extremist groups have begun to persecute the Christians.
Militant groups such as Al-Qaeda and its front organization, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, are targeting Christians on purely sectarian grounds, accusing them of siding with the “Crusader” US forces.
There are reports that in parts of Baghdad and Mosul, some imams have issued edicts ordering the death or conversion of Christians who refuse to flee.
Amid the danger, however, Baghdad’s remaining Christians continue to try to preserve the rituals that bind their community together.
“The children have been meeting here for more than a month, receiving Christian teachings to prepare to receive the communion despite these circumstances,” Archbishop Matoka told AFP at the church.
“In the past we used to collect the pupils in the church car but this year their parents have to bring them to the church because of the bad security situation,” he explained.
Several Baghdad Christian churches have cancelled their annual first communion ceremonies to avoid attracting danger, he said, but the Syrian Catholic Church decided to go ahead despite the risks.
“Our future is in the hands of God, but we know and see there is a hellish scheme to expel Christians from Iraq and the Middle East. I hope this will not happen. Christianity was born in these countries so how could we leave them? We have martyrs these days,” the archbishop said.
“Many priests have been kidnapped and slaughtered. Terrorists are compelling Christians to convert to Islam or be killed … Jesus told us: ‘I would send you as sheep among wolves. Don’t be afraid. I am with you.” – AFP