Iraqi Christian refugees pack pews in Lebanon

907-20090102-115736-pic-129831191standaloneprod_affiliate691.jpgBOUCHRIEH, Lebanon — In Iraq, the priests routinely hold Mass in nearly empty churches — if they dare open their church doors at all.

At the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in this working-class Christian suburb east of Beirut, the Rev. Joseph Malkoum preaches to an Iraqi congregation that expands every Sunday, swelled by the ranks of the Iraqi Christians fleeing Iraq.

In recent weeks, he has noticed a fresh increase in the number of new faces crowded into the pews as a surge in violence directed against Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul fuels a new wave of refugees.

McCLATCHY TRIBUNE Iraqi refugees receive communion at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Health from Rev. Joseph Malkoum on Dec. 14, in Bouchrieh, Lebanon. Malkoum’s congregation is expanding as Christians continue to flee Iraq.
“There was a period when we felt the numbers were going down, but after the recent troubles in Mosul the movement is picking up again,” said Malkoum, who holds a special Mass every Sunday for Iraqi Chaldeans, the denomination to which the majority of Iraqi Christians belongs.

Iraq may be safer now, and some Christians celebrated Christmas openly this year in Baghdad.

But the exodus of the country’s ancient Christian minority has not stopped — and indeed, appears to be accelerating again.

“They’re threatening the Christians so that they’ll be scared and will leave,” said Yohan Hanna Hermes, 59, an Iraqi from Mosul who arrived in Beirut in mid-December and attended Mass the next day for the first time since September. “It’s a deliberate campaign to drive the Christians out.”

Iraqis who can afford the plane ticket prefer to go to Lebanon because of its large — 40 percent — Christian population.

Others make their way to Jordan or most likely Syria, the main destination for Iraqi refugees.

The numbers are small. At the Chaldean Archbishopric just outside Beirut, where many new arrivals report to receive aid and advice, 90 new families were registered in October and November, up from an average of 10 a month earlier in the year.

But that comes in addition to as many as 500,000 to 700,000 of the 1.4 million Christians in Iraq on the eve of the war who are believed to have fled in the past five years, according to a report last week by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body appointed by Congress.

“In five years from now there won’t be any Christians left in Iraq. It’s happening quietly but also very quickly,” said retired Gen. Michel Kasdano, a researcher and spokesman at the Chaldean Archbishopric.

In 2006 and 2007, most of the new arrivals were from Baghdad, he said.

But since the attacks in late October against Christians in Mosul forced an estimated 2,000 Christian families to flee to nearby villages.

“From those who are coming, we hear the others are packing and making preparations to leave. It’s only a matter of time before they all are gone.”

For Ikhlas Aziz, 40, and her husband, truck driver Dawood Kariokos, 50, the decision to leave was more than a year in the making, since Kariokos was twice kidnapped in 2007.

They cite not only the repeated acts of violence and intimidation against Christians but also a climate of discrimination that makes them feel they are no longer welcome.

“All the Christians are terrified all of the time,” said Kariokos, as he waited with his wife to register for aid at the archbishopric.

“And if I apply for a job they will take the Muslim, not the Christian. Always they prefer the Muslims.”

Christians still represent a small minority of refugees, aid agencies point out.

Around 60 percent of all the Iraqis who fled are Sunni Muslims, even though they account for only 20 percent of Iraq’s population, said Sybella Wilkes of the UNHCR in Damascus.