From the archives: New fears for Christians in Iraq

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Churchgoers receive communion during an afternoon Mass at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart church in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday, May 11, 2003. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians say they have faced increased persecution in Iraq. (Noah Addis | The Star-Ledger)
Mark Mueller | NJ Advance Media for By Mark Mueller | NJ Advance Media for
Editor’s note: This story about the rising persecution of Christians in Iraq ran in The Star-Ledger on May 13, 2003, providing a window into the beginning of an anti-Christian movement in that nation. Reporter Mark Mueller and photographer Noah Addis spent five weeks in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Two weeks ago, Raad Karim Essa arrived home from work to find his furniture on the street. His Muslim landlord wasn’t renting to Christians anymore.

“He told us not to argue and threatened us,” said Essa, 42, a father of four. “He said the government was no longer here to protect us. What could we do? We feared for our lives.”

In a different neighborhood, Essa’s brother was evicted. So were two families from Essa’s parish. “The Muslims want to destroy us,” said Amira Nisan, 38, Essa’s wife. “I think we were better off under Saddam.”

Christian persecution in IraqA woman attends an afternoon Mass at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 11, 2003. Some Iraqi Christians say persecution by Muslims has increased since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which afforded Christians a measure of protection. (Noah Addis | The Star-Ledger)

Such a statement, once unthinkable, is voiced increasingly today among Iraq’s 800,000 Christians.

Like most of their countrymen, Christians greeted the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with celebration and hope. But in little more than a month, their desire for greater religious freedom has been replaced by fear of the fundamentalism rippling through Iraq’s Shia Muslim majority, which has moved quickly to exert its influence after decades of violent repression.

Christian women say they’ve been harassed by Shia men for walking on the street without head scarves, and priests complain that Shia clerics inflame religious hatred by calling for the expulsion from Iraq of “nonbelievers.”

The most overt acts have been directed at Iraq’s liquor stores and manufacturers, almost universally run by Christians. The owners say they’ve been threatened with death for selling alcohol, forbidden under a strict interpretation of Islamic law.

“I’m afraid for my people,” said Bishop Ishlemon Warduni, religious leader of Iraq’s Chaldean community, which represents about 80 percent of the nation’s Christians. The remaining 20 percent are mostly Syrians, Assyrians and Armenians.

“During the war, we were not afraid like we are now,” said Warduni, 60. “All Christians are in danger.”

Last week, Warduni expressed his concerns in a letter to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Today the bishop is scheduled to make his case in a meeting with Jay Garner, the retired U.S. Army general who is administering Iraq.

“We would like a guarantee of our rights, our freedom and our protection,” Warduni said. “We have a 2,000-year history in Iraq, and that is now threatened. The fanatics would see us gone.”

The worries are most pronounced in southern Iraq, a Shia stronghold where clerics have issued the most strident calls for the creation of an Islamic republic. Underscoring the dangers, the Christian owners of two liquor stores were shot to death last week in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, after rebuffing demands to shutter their shops.

But religious tensions are high and rising in Baghdad as well.

“Ten days ago was better than a week ago, and a week ago was better than today,” Warduni said. “I have no doubt that tomorrow will be worse. We’re losing what little protection we had.”

Under Saddam, Christians were permitted to worship but not to publicly express their views or proselytize. It also was forbidden to give children Christian names.

Christian persecution in IraqParishioners leave Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Church in Baghdad, Iraq, on May 11, 2003. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqi Christians said they have faced increasing persecution. The dome visible in background is a new mosque. (Noah Addis | The Star-Ledger)

While those strictures have been swept aside, Christians say they feel even less free in the face of growing Shia pride and power. In the chaotic days after Baghdad’s fall, Shia clerics sent armed followers to patrol neighborhoods and to safeguard schools and hospitals from looting.

Still under Shia control, some of those hospitals now bear signs ordering any woman seeking treatment to wear a head scarf.

“The Muslims want to make us be like them,” said Bernadette Thoma, 50, of Baghdad’s Baladiyat neighborhood.

Thoma said she never before felt threatened by Muslims. Now she fears walking past mosques, where men gathered outside sometimes shout at her to cover her head.

“If this continues, what kind of future will we have for our children?” Thoma said. “We’re trading one kind of dictatorship for another.”

More disconcerting to many Christians is the belief that they are being targeted for violence and rape by Muslim men. Parishioners and priests at half a dozen churches in recent days told stories of women and young girls snatched from the streets in broad daylight.

Almost inevitably, however, those telling the stories can provide no details,  saying they heard them from a friend or family member.

According to one account repeated at several parishes, a Christian man, Arkan David Belu, 28, was shot to death by several Shia men as he left a church service Sunday.

“They killed him only because he was a Christian,” said Zuher Butros, 60, the caretaker at St. George Chaldean Church in the New Baghdad neighborhood.

Belu was indeed shot to death, but his uncle, Hikmat Belu, said the killing had nothing to do with his nephew’s religion. Belu, the uncle said, was simply caught in the crossfire between warring gangs, which have terrorized the capital in the absence of any police presence.

Christian persecution in IraqAs seen through a bus windshield pierced by a bullet, Muslim men pray in the street and surrounding area in front of the Al-Mohsen mosque in the Sadr City section of Baghdad, Iraq, on Friday, May 2, 2003. More than 25,000 people attended the Friday prayer. (Noah Addis | The Star-Ledger)

The Rev. Sarmud Yusuf, pastor of Belu’s church, St. Pythion, said the rampant rumors feed hysteria and stoke unnecessary hatred between Christians and Muslims.

“We should not exaggerate the problems, because Muslims are facing many of the same problems we are,” Yusuf said. “Muslim men are dying in the streets, too. Muslim women are getting raped. There is a war here in Baghdad, but it’s not between Christians and Muslims. It’s between the armed gangs and the law-abiding residents. If we had security here, I think we would see the tension come down.”

If at least some of the accounts are false, the fear is real.

Ilham Sabah, a 30-year-old Christian hairdresser, said her family insists she wear long, concealing dresses instead of her customary pants, frowned upon by Shia clerics. She said her relatives also have forbidden her from going to crowded, Muslim-run street markets.

“I pray the whole time I walk home from work,” Sabah said.

The relationship between Muslims and Christians has grown more sensitive with the profusion of new mosques. In almost every Baghdad neighborhood, vacant buildings and former government offices have been converted into Shia houses of worship.

One such mosque, Jama Al-Wehda Al-Islamiya, or Unity of Islam, sits directly across the street from Warduni’s church, Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. Before the war, the building served as neighborhood headquarters for the ruling Ba’ath Party. Later, it was looted and partially burned.

The Shia moved in three weeks ago, mounting half a dozen loudspeakers that blare the call to prayer five times a day, sometimes interfering with church services across the street. On Sunday, workers finished building a kuba, or brick dome, atop the roof.

To the mosque’s imam, Sheik Ali Al-Bahadili, the building is a symbol of Shia resurgence after so many years of persecution under Saddam. Inside rooms damaged by fire, Al-Bahadili pointed to singed Ba’ath Party notebooks that list the names of Shia men executed by the dictator’s regime.

Christian persecution in IraqChurchgoers receive communion during an afternoon Mass at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart church in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday, May 11, 2003. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians say they have faced increased persecution in Iraq. (Noah Addis | The Star-Ledger)

“We will keep these files as a reminder of what we went through,” the imam said. “Our pain cannot translate into words. We will never let it happen again.”

Like many Shia clerics, Al-Bahadili said he is supportive of an Islamic state, but he said it should be one that respects the rights of Christians and other Iraqi minority groups. He flatly rejected claims that Muslims have been targeting or intimidating Christians.

“It is not fact,” Al-Bahadili said. “They are lies spread by those who still support the regime.”

Sam Hanna argues otherwise.

Last week, the 43-year-old Christian arrived at his Baghdad liquor store to find a note that had been slipped under the door.

“It said that if we didn’t stop selling alcohol, the shop would be bombed and we would be killed,” Hanna said. “They said alcohol was against God’s law. Hah! It’s against God’s law to sell alcohol but not to kill people? They are hypocrites.”

Since receiving the note, Hanna has hired four armed guards, and while he removed his shop’s sign advertising liquor sales, he refuses to close his doors.

“Let them come,” he said. “I have plenty of guns here.”

Most alcohol purveyors aren’t as willing to fight. Across the capital, shops selling beer and liquor remain dark. Hanna estimates 70 percent are closed for good.

The situation is equally grave for the region’s distilleries. About 20 miles north of Baghdad, in the town of Baquba, six factories that once manufactured whiskey, gin and arak, a sweet Arabic liquor, have been closed for a month or more.

Christian persecution in IraqAn armed guard patrols the grounds of the Al-Abraj alcohol factory in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday, May 11, 2003. A day after this photo was taken, Al-Abraj and other distilleries, all run by Christians, were destroyed by hundreds of people, some armed with assault rifles and rocket propelled grenades, according to the owners and the U.S. military (Noah Addis | The Star-Ledger)

All of the plants are guarded by twitchy men with assault rifles, and all of the men tell the same story.

A sayyed, or Shia cleric believed descended from Islam’s founder, the Prophet Muhammad, went from factory to factory two weeks ago with a large group of armed men, decreeing that only medicinal alcohol could be manufactured in the future.

In the days afterward, the armed men repeatedly returned, spraying the factories with bullets. At the Al-Abraj alcohol plant, the attackers fired rocket-propelled grenades, partially collapsing one building and scarring the wall of another. The guards returned fire.

“Everyone’s afraid,” said Albert Paul Younan, 42, manager at Al-Abraj. “We agreed that we would make alcohol only for medicine, and still they come.”

Younan said he sought help from a U.N. facility in Baghdad, where he spoke with an American military commander.

“I told him we need protection, and he said, ‘I’m sorry. You’re going to have to protect yourselves,'” Younan said. “There is no law anymore. There is only Islamic law. God help us all.”

Editor’s note: One day after this story ran, armed mobs overran the Al-Abraj distillery and at least three others just outside Baghdad, killing guards and destroying the facilities, according to the owners and the U.S. military. It is not known if the guard pictured above survived.

Mark Mueller may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MarkJMueller. Find on Facebook.