A nation without protection

getarticleimageservlet.jpgAn Iraqi Christian woman stands in line at a polling center in Bartillah, 14 kilometers (8 miles) east of Mosul, Iraq, Saturday, Jan. 31, 2009. AP Photo
The Kurdish Globe

Iraqi Christians continue to flee Iraq to bordering countries – and Lebanon

Many Christian families have already left Iraq for the neighbouring countries; thousands fled the violence in Mosul last year and took refuge in Kurdistan Region. As Globe’s Rafael Thelen reports, Christian communities in Iraq, especially in volatile regions like Kirkuk and Mosul do still feel unsafe and continue to leave a country that has been their home for centuries.

Despite the improving security in the southern parts of Iraq, Christians in the north still face eviction and murder by various groups and flee to surrounding countries, including Lebanon, where they hope to have a temporarily home and a chance to be resettled to western countries.

The Christian community in Iraq is one of the oldest in the world, dating back to the years of Jesus Christ and has always been an integral part of the societies living in Mesopotamia, but currently its future looks bleak.

‘Christians in Iraq are finished’, Yousef Ablahad, a Christian from a village close to Mosul, told The Kurdish Globe, summarizing the situation of his community.

The increasing disorder and the lack of a working security apparatus left minorities like the Christians without protection. While major groups like Sunni, Shia and Kurds were able to organise effective armed militias, the Christians were defenseless and became an easy target for blackmailing and assassination.

‘One day we received a phone call, asking to pay a ransom of US$50.000, or get killed,’ said the 69-year old.

Having lived through the long years of economical decline in Iraq, the family was not able to pay the amount and decided to flee the country, returning just recently.

But not everybody wanted to consider this option and many had to face the consequences, as Ablahad can tell: ‘some paid, some got killed.’

In Mosul, the third biggest city of Iraq, the situation is the worst.

More than half of the originally 20.000 Christians already left or were killed and the remaining face a hard time.

A wide spread tactic of the assassins is to set up fake checkpoints and to kidnap the people whose ID states their Christian confession.

‘People from the village who work in Mosul are often targeted,’ adds Ablahad, who hasn’t been in Mosul for four years, afraid to be kidnapped.

Other events like the killing of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho in Mosul, the targeting of churches and the demolition of deserted Christian houses created an atmosphere of angst.

‘Many churches were bombed for political reasons, even if the people pretend to act for religious reasons’ said Jarjees Qas Mosa , Bishop of the Syrian Catholic Church.

Who exactly stands behind a certain act of violence is not always obvious, because the vulnerability of the Christian community attracts a mix of fundamentalists and criminals.

‘It is Al Qaeda, criminals, and even Kurdish,’ Ablahad said.

‘Maybe the future will be good for Sunni, Shia and Kurds, but not for Christians,’ he added

By now already half of the originally 800.000 Christians in Iraq fled to other countries.

Some of them already left during Saddam Hussein’s regime, but the recent years gave the exodus a new dimension.

‘Some people leave for jobs, or because of the persecution, or they just want to live in a country with peace and development’ added Qas Mosa.

Most of the people leave the country overland, going to Syria, before entering Lebanon on a one month tourist visa.

Michel Kasdano of the Chaldean Christian Church in Beirut welcomes the refugees and provides them with basic help: ‘The Christians of Iraq would do almost everything right now to leave the country; they do not feel safe anymore.’

Once they overstay the visa’s duration their status becomes illegal, and many were detained in the last years, but a recent decision by the Lebanese government allows them to stay in Lebanon as unrecognized refugees under the supervision of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

‘The situation has improved, but they are still scared every time they pass a checkpoint or got to work’ adds Kasdano who served in the Lebanese army as a general until two years ago.

Nevertheless many Christian families decide to come to Lebanon because they heard that it is easier to be resettled to western countries from here and because they hope to find a safe haven in the existing Christian communities in Lebanon.

‘Here they have churches where they can pray and people with similar cultural background, while in Syria and Jordan the Muslims are predominant,’ Kasdano added.

Another reason for the Christian families to choose Lebanon might be the widespread rumour about hit squads in Syria, looking for families that try to escape ransom demands.

These facts might explain that 20% of the Iraqi refugees in Lebanon are Christians, while their overall share of refugees is only 3%.

Kasdano deeply regrets that one of the oldest cultures in the Middle East might cease to exist, but the situation in Iraq is not likely to change soon.

Ablahad, whose children already live in New Zealand, does not believe, that the US will be able to bring peace and looks back to the old times: Things were ‘not good’ under Saddam, but ‘better than now.’

Bishop Qas Mosa, as well, deplores the deterioration of the security situation and the loss of livelihood for so many families.

‘Here in the Christian villages the situation is acceptable, but in Bagdad, Kirkuk or Basra?and we lose our security even here,’ adding, that they try to help with the resources they have, ‘but it’s not easy to help the families, when they lost their jobs and houses.’

With violent conflict around cities like Mosul and Kirkuk accelerating and federal law seeming to be increasingly disadvantageous for the Christians the exodus is likely to continue:

Christianity was here ‘before Islam and other younger religions’, said Qas Musa ‘but young people want to have a job and peace and we just don’t feel equality here.’