Insurgent group threatening Christians

By HANNAH ALLAM and LEILA FADEL McClatchy Newspapers

Madeline Shukr Yusuf, a 74-year-old Iraqi Christian, grabbed her rosary and prayer book before fleeing Baghdad several days ago. She now lives with other Christian refugees in the Syrian capital, Damascus.
BAGHDAD — A group affiliated with al Qaeda is giving Christians in Baghdad a stark set of four options: Convert to Islam, marry your daughters to our fighters, pay an Islamic tax or leave with only the clothes on your back. A U.S. military official said American forces became aware of the threats only last month and have erected barriers around the largest Christian enclave in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood in an effort to protect residents. Christians in Baghdad refuse to discuss the threats by Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent umbrella group that’s dominated by al Qaeda in Iraq, for fear of retribution. But in Syria, where thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled, tales abound of families that were killed or driven from their homes because they either refused or couldn’t afford to pay the jizya, a tax usually levied on non-Muslim men of military age that’s been part of Islam for more than 1,000 years. “Two or three months ago, we heard we were going to be forcibly removed from Dora,” said Rafah Elia Daoud, 53, who fled to Damascus, Syria’s capital, on May 24. “Not everyone got a paper with the threat, but we knew. The choice was to convert, pay the jizya or get out.” A note and a bullet Her husband, Jamal Antone Karoumy, 66, said one of his brothers got a note and a single bullet under his door. The note said, “If you don’t pay the jizya to the resistance, you’ll be killed.” Madeline Shukr Yusuf, 74, is still shaken by her recent escape to Damascus. She said she didn’t have enough money to pay a monthly jizya of 250,000 Iraqis dinars, about $200. The insurgents were determined to collect their tax, she said. “They wanted to kill me and take my gold bracelets,” she said, tears filling her eyes at the memory. “They tell us pay or give a daughter in marriage to a fighter.” Fear everywhere It’s unclear when the threats against Christians began. But fear is palpable among them in Iraq today. On June 3, a priest was gunned down in Mosul with three companions after afternoon prayers. His body lay in the streets for hours. Another priest was kidnapped Wednesday in a Baghdad neighborhood. Christians in the capital refuse to talk. At a church in Karada, a priest shooed away a McClatchy correspondent. Nearby, five black funeral banners graced with yellow crosses fluttered in the wind. Complex relationship The relationship between Christians and Muslims has been complex. In the Middle Ages, Christian crusaders tried to capture Jerusalem from Muslim rule at least 10 times, and modern-day extremists still invoke those efforts in calling for jihad — holy war — to defend their faith. Al Qaeda, which has killed thousands of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, has also targeted Christians, whom Iraqis widely consider to be pacifists. Still, early Muslims considered Christians, along with Jews, to be “people of the book,” as Muslims refer to followers of other monotheistic religions, and believed that they were entitled to protection under Islamic rule, in exchange for the jizya. It was considered a substitute for the tax for the poor, the zakat, which Muslims pay annually. In some cases, Christians who fought alongside Muslims were exempted from the jizya and shared in the spoils of war with Muslims. Christians in Iraq Iraq had long been home to thriving Christian communities, primarily Assyrian and Chaldean Catholics, who trace their roots to ancient Mesopotamia. Several of Saddam Hussein’s closest confidants were Christian, including his foreign minister, Tariq Aziz. Christian communities were prominent in many major Iraqi cities, including Mosul, in the north, and Basra, in the south. The Christian minority was estimated at 636,000 to 800,000 of Iraq’s prewar population of 24 million. Baghdad had major Christian enclaves in the central neighborhood of Karada, the eastern, mostly Shiite neighborhood of New Baghdad and nearby al-Ghadir and the notorious Sunni-dominated Dora in the capital’s south. Many Christian Iraqis have fled the country, with at least 19,000 registered with the U.N. in Damascus alone. Ablahad Afram Sawa, a Christian Iraqi legislator, estimates that a half-million Christians have fled Iraq since 2004. He calls the exodus the worst oppression faced by Christians in nearly 2,000 years. Sources: McClatchy Newspapers, Association of Religious Data Archives, Adam Barth, Star-Telegram research