Christians leaving Basra despite decades of co-existence

Basra – Voices of Iraq
Basra, Nov 18, (VOI)- “From the tens of thousands of Christian families that used to live in Basra before 2003, only about five hundred remain in the southern city with their eyes on assistance coming from relatives living abroad,” Sami Basheer, a Christian from Basra said.
Basra, a predominantly Shiite city in southern Iraq, once a secular city that dealt with people of all religious affiliation with tolerance, has since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 become a conservative society with Muslim extremists.
“The civic lifestyle in Basra has retreated into a more conservative one, mainly imposed on the society by the Muslim extremists,” Amir Shaaya, a Christian, told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).
Christians, most from the early Assyrian sect and Catholic Chaldean churches, immigrated from northern Iraqi mountainous villages to Ninewa, Baghdad, and Basra during the Ottoman reign.
Although some challenged the percentage, Basra police chief Major General Abdul Jaleel Khalaf said in early November 2007, “more than 50% of Basra Christians have left the city.”
Christians began leaving Iraq before 2003, based mainly on economic reasons, and in small numbers. The uncertain future in post-war Iraq forced large part of the world’s oldest Christian communities to abandon their homes.
Shaaya, the only Christian teacher left at Ashar Prepatory Teachers’ Institute, added “Our numbers have started to seriously decrease during the 12 years of sanctions from 1991-2003. Previously, hundreds of Iraqi Christian soldiers were killed in the Iraqi – Iranian eight year war.”
“Large numbers of Christian families immigrated to the U.S., Australia and Canada, while some returned to the birthplaces of their ancestors in Mosul, northern Iraq,” he added.
While Iraqi laws banned Muslims from owning alcoholic drinks shops, many Christians have been involved in the business for quite some time. Christians, who once made up some 3 percent of Iraq’s population of about 25 million, shrank in numbers after attacks on purveyors of alcohol and music had already rattled Iraq’s tiny Christian community.
“Not all the Christians are barmen, or wine shopkeepers, a lot of them were doctors, engineers, technicians, and victims of wars orchestrated by generals and idiot politicians!” Amir Azzo, a Christian, said in a rejecting tone.
In Basra, Muslims and Christians lived together in peace for decades leading to an undeclared pact of co-existence.
Dr. Nabeel Edward, an anthropologist , who was formerly a citizen of Basra and now a resident of Stutgart , Germany, revives some of his school and neighborhood memories with Basra’s Muslim families, “During the Eids , we used to take part in their religious celebrations. At school, if there was a Muslim religious lesson, we were free to leave the class into the school open air yard or stay but many of us would prefer to stay and listen to Muslim teachings! ”
Some Christians, proud of their roots in their country, preferred to stay and face the difficulties also shared by their Muslim neighbors.
Anees, son of the Metropolean Archbishop Michael Kassab of the Assyrian Church in Ashar, told VOI “We are facing threats the same way as Muslims would be. We are part of a society encountering threats from everywhere.”
“He is mistaken who thinks that immigrating Christians walk on a silk road to America, Canada, or Australia. On the contrary, so many Christians went back home escaping from the various obstacles they met in some of the neighboring countries,” Anees explained adding, “We are still Iraqis, and a large number of us bear Arabic names. I am merely one example in hundreds.”