Christians in Iraq living in fear of ‘pogrom’ after bomb attacks

a-burnt-out-vehicle-at-si-0062.jpg‘It is hard to find a Christian who wants to stay in Iraq,’ says senior religious figure as many seek asylum abroad
Martin Chulov and Enas Ibrahim
A burnt out vehicle at the site of one of the bomb attacks targeting Christian homes in Baghdad. Photograph: Mohammed Jalil/EPAFor the second time in four years, Linda Jalal and her family are on the run inside their own country. On Tuesday afternoon, they abruptly packed their meagre belongings and abandoned their house in east Baghdad.
The family had been fixing the shattered windows from a bomb placed next to their car when dawned – the attack was not random; it was one of many that day targeting Christian families. “I am scared,” she said from a relative’s lounge. “How could this happen to us again?”
For Jalal and her mother, Iyada Marouky, the past week has been the worst of their lives. Worse than the grim months of 2003 when they fled their first home in the south Baghdad suburb of Dora after armed men came to their doorstep with a warning. Worse, too, than the initial days of anarchy after the ousting of Saddam Hussein. For all his atrocities, the dictator left the Christians well alone.
“We didn’t suffer under him,” said Jalal. “But now I am terrified to live in this society. We are being slaughtered like sheep. Yet we are civilians and this is our country.”
Jalal’s house was one of at least a dozen Christian homes attacked on Wednesday morning. Three more were bombed on Tuesday night. The bombings were the first co-ordinated attack on the city’s Christians following almost eight years of civil strife. And for what remains of Iraq’s Christian communities, it is starting to look like a pogrom.
The attacks came nine days after al-Qaida stormed one of Baghdad’s most prominent cathedrals, slaughtering more than 40 worshippers who had just arrived for mass and horrifying a city that is no stranger to terrible acts of violence.
The ramifications have been enormous. Now, more than any time before, Iraq’s Christians are reconsidering their futures in a land where they have prospered since biblical times.
“It’s hard to be accurate about how many of us are left,” said Abdullah al-Noufali, the head of Iraq’s Christian Endowment Fund. “But we numbered around 1 million before 2003 and are around 500,000 now.
“Things have changed this week,” he added. “These days it is hard to find a Christian who will tell you he wants to stay in Iraq. The church attack was the worst [crisis] in our history. For thousands of years we have stood alongside other sects here, fought in wars and endured all types of disasters. And now this.”
There is barely an Iraqi Christian family in which some members do not live abroad. Many, like Jalal’s two sisters, were victims of Baghdad’s indiscriminate violence in 2006-07 and were granted asylum through the United Nations. One sister fled with her two children to the Netherlands after her husband was killed for running a shop selling alcohol. A second sister, whose husband was also murdered, now lives in the US.
Marouky, the sisters’ mother, said she wants to emigrate as well, with Linda and her fourth daughter, who is now frightened to leave her home.
“I don’t care if I live in a tent,” she said. “As long as I have security I will sleep without fear. If you read the history of the Assyrians and the Catholics you will see we were very important in establishing the civilisation in Iraq. And now we are being murdered by barbarians.
“When I walk the streets now I feel that people are looking at me with disrespect, especially the religious men and women. They say: ‘She is without a hijab, so she must be Christian.’ They lower their eyes.
“I cannot trust my neighbours. My only solution is to isolate myself and to hide from society. How is this life? I say again that if any country accepts me, I will leave right now.”
A bone-chilling fear seems pervasive throughout many of Baghdad’s Christian communities. It started with the church massacre and became much worse this week when terrorists started attacking congregation members where they live.
But in the northern city of Mosul, fear has been endemic for the past five years. “You want to know our situation?” asked Father George Fatuhi, from the Mar Boulos Chaldean Catholic Church in central Mosul. “The attacks started in 2003 and they haven’t stopped. Can you imagine this: there were 4,000 Catholic families living here back then and now around 20 percent remain.
“My church has been attacked four times. Sometimes on Sundays we have only 20 people at mass. If these attacks continue, I don’t think you will find one Christian left in Iraq.”
On Wednesday, a commemoration mass inside Our Lady of Salvation Cathedral, still stained with the blood of two dead priests and the terrorists who killed them, turned into a summit about the future for a growing group of reluctant Iraqis.
“This is our grandfathers’ land and we do not want to leave,” said Chaldean Patriarch, Cardinal Emmanuel Delli. “We should encourage Iraqis to stay. We want peace and we want security.”
Later in the week, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq offered all Iraq’s Christians refuge and safe-keeping. “I will protect them and I will give them benefits,” said Massoud Barazani.
But few seem willing to take up his offer.
Bassam Sami, 22, had stumbled out of Our Lady of Salvation at the end of the siege and collapsed into my arms. “I will leave with my family tomorrow,” he sobbed, drenched in sweat and speckled with blood. Almost two weeks later, he had not changed his mind.” Our souls are in danger and our souls are our most valuable thing,” he said. “The solution is to emigrate. We have to leave this place for anywhere in the world.”