Iraq’s Christians, Lebanon’s shame

By Peter Durkovic, The Daily Star
Iraq’s Christians are a dwindling minority, one that may soon disappear from the Middle East. But you would not realize the seriousness of their plight from the way Lebanon has dealt with them.
Whether it is the state, churches or their Lebanese coreligionists, all have done little to help the community confront its myriad problems.
Today, the number of Iraqi Christian refugees in Lebanon is estimated to be around 5,000. However, since 2003, when the United States and its allies invaded Iraq, more than 20,000 have come through Lebanon. Most have resettled in the European Union, the United States or Australia, while a mere 1 percent has returned to Iraq. Those in Lebanon have remained because their request to resettle in third countries has been denied by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
A majority of the Iraqi Christians, some 65 percent, are from the Chaldean Catholic Church. The rest include Assyrians, Syriac Orthodox, and Syriac Catholics. Yet no matter to which church they belong, the Iraqis all face similar problems: the absence of official refugee status; difficulties in obtaining adequate accommodations, education and medical assistance; and abusive labor practices.
Because Iraqi refugees are not officially recognized as such by the Lebanese state, many arrived in Lebanon on a tourist visa. Once their visas expire, their presence in the country becomes illegal. Unofficially, the Lebanese authorities have allowed them to stay, but because Lebanon did not sign the 1951 Geneva convention relating to the status of refugees, the legal foundation for their presence is vague. In effect, most Iraqi Christians do not officially exist in Lebanon.
The Lebanese position is ambiguous. Iraqi Christians can be detained by the security forces once their visas expire, but the security forces have not been specifically ordered to find them and expel them from Lebanon.
This ambiguity only adds to the precariousness of their daily existence and living conditions. There are those who have been taken into custody and sent back to Iraq, though a resolution of their legal status would have allowed them to remain in Lebanon until the situation in Iraq improves and they can go home, or elsewhere.
If the Iraqis expected their own churches in Lebanon to be of greater assistance, they will have been equally disappointed. Very few of the Lebanese Chaldean and Syriac churches are assisting in easing the refugees’ difficulties, by offering them spiritual support, an education, understanding, or social assistance. Education is of particular importance to the Iraqis, because that will provide their children with the knowledge and skills to enhance their future job opportunities.
Alas, Lebanon’s Christian communities have not shown any greater solidarity with their Iraqi coreligionists. And yet it was them whom the Iraqi Christians expected to count on when they chose to leave their homeland. There have been exceptions of course, but the most recurring feature that the refugees have found is that their brethren have tended to abuse them as cheap labor, often paying them no more than 30 percent of what would be considered a normal salary.
Nor is it rare for employers to pay nothing at all for work done. They know that the Iraqis, because of their illegal status, will not dare report them to the authorities. This makes it more urgent for Lebanon to resolve their legal status by officially recognizing them as refugees.
Adequate medical treatment is another problem that the Iraqis are confronting. Most are poor and have only very rudimentary medical coverage. Those with serious illnesses are almost guaranteed of being denied appropriate medical care.
The issue can only be effectively resolved with the collaboration of international institutions, including the United Nations, and Lebanese non-governmental organizations. Some political parties, in their turn, have intervened on behalf of the refugees. They include the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb (Phalange), and Hezbollah. But they usually do so to advance a political agenda and only at specific periods, such as Christmas.
There have been sporadic endeavors to address the Iraqis’ predicament. However, the impact has been very limited. Recently, for example, Notre Dame University hosted a conference on the Iraqi Christians that was attended by Lebanese and Iraqi officials, as well as by Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, Syrian Catholic and Muslim representatives. The participants formulated a number of resolutions, but until now none have been implemented.
To allow the situation to fester will means creating another angry refugee community in Lebanon, with all the difficulties ensuing from this: a sense of hopelessness, psychological problems, illiteracy among the young and so on.
And yet Lebanese churches and the government have great latitude to highlight the issue domestically and internationally, and mobilize support on behalf of the Iraqis. They can, and must, provide the refugees with official documentation until they return to Iraq or move elsewhere. A suffering community surely merits better than the Iraqis have received in Lebanon.
Peter Durkovic, a Slovak journalist recently in Lebanon, writes for a number of media outlets in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 11, 2011, on page 7.