By SEBNEM ARSU ISTANBUL â€“ A small community of Iraqi Christians is spending this Christmas Eve in a small basement chapel at a community center in Istanbul, straining its 150-person capacity.
See â€˜Iraqi Christians Lay Low on Christmasâ€™ by John Leland in Baghdad
â€” At War
. As many as half the estimated 1 million members of the Baghdad-based Chaldean Assyrian Church, facing threats and discrimination at home, have fled Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, seeking refuge in neighboring Jordan, Syria, Turkey and beyond. Around 3,000 have settled in Istanbul and its environs.
Native speakers of Aramaic, members of the church have lived in the Middle East for centuries, with population spread among Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Iran, but they did not really belong to any country.
â€œWe are a national church without a nation,â€ said, Idris Gabriel Emlek, one of the Fathers of the Chaldean Assyrian Church.
Their community headquarters in Turkey, at which Father Emlek presides, was founded in 1958 in the historical Beyoglu district and expanded in 1980 with a basement Chapel that hosts Sunday services and upper floors offering temporary accommodation for visiting fellows.
Spurred by an attack in October in which their main church in Baghdad was besieged by gunmen and more than 50 members were killed, this Christmas season has seen a new exodus into the neighboring countries.
â€œIâ€™ve never seen as many people coming here as I have in the last few weeks,â€ Father Emlek said in an interview early this month, sitting under a portrait of Pope Benedict XVI.
While Turkey does not allow refugees to resettle permanently, it does function as a stopping point for applicants seeking permanent resettlement in other countries and according to the office of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, the number of Iraqi Christians claiming religious persecution in Iraq quadrupled in the last four months of 2010.
â€œThey also go to Lebanon, Jordan and Syria but it seems that Turkey is the most popular despite the fact that they do not speak the language,â€ he said.
While the Ottoman Empire was home to hundreds of thousands of Christians, there are barely any left in modern Turkey, and despite tensions between their governments, Iraqi Chaldeans feel safe here and feel that they are treated with respect and sensitivity.
â€œThere is a lot of goodwill towards Turkey in Iraq,â€ Father Emlek said, â€œThis is an ideal spot for many refugees awaiting their final destination. Turkey receives refugees very well.â€
The life of a refugee, though, no matter how well the country receives them, is no bowl of cherries.
The Immigration Police dictate the locality in which refugee applicants must live, without offering any guidance for work or providing any kind of allowance. Medical expenses are another challenge with doctor visits often unaffordable for large Iraqi families which average up to 10 people each.
â€œPeople come here with severe psychological problems but do not have the means to see a doctor.â€ Father Emlek said.
Sitting in one of the ornate chairs neatly placed against the walls of their meeting room, he sounded hopeful for more international help, and increased acceptance of refugees, to come after the media coverage of the recent attack in Baghdad.
â€œI hear European Union nations trying to reach out, which is very good,â€ Father said. â€œUnfortunately, only after the wave of violence, have Chaldean Christians been more properly received.â€
This year, however, they are simply thankful to have their modest chapel in which to celebrate Christmas.