Iraqi Christians Cling to Their Faith in Jordanian Exile

By Mona Alami
AMMAN, May 14, 2010 (IPS) – As the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq began, the country’s Christians started streaming across the border into neighbouring Jordan. Today most of them continue to live here in abject poverty with no hope of ever returning to the land of their ancestors.

“We have lost our home country, we are not willing to lose our faith,” says Brahim, a 65-year-old chemistry teacher and Christian Iraqi residing in Amman.

According to figures released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Iraqi refugee population is largest in Syria, with some 220,000 registered with the body. Another 47,000 have been registered with UNHCR in Jordan, while Lebanon hosts 10,000 registered refugees.

“The number of Christian Iraqi refugees in Jordan has decreased dramatically from about 30,000 only a few years ago to some 10,000 to 15,000 today,” says Rev. Father Raymond Moussalli.

Christians residing in Jordan belong mostly to the Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian and Protestant churches. “Most of us speak Chaldean, which is very similar to the original language of our Lord Jesus Christ,” says Oussama, a 24-year-old Iraqi Christian.

Christians congregate daily at the basement of the small Chaldean Church in Webdeh hills, where it is headquartered. They come to exchange stories of their home country, pray in silence, or simply to find solace with others refugees who like them are forced to live in a foreign land. Many live around the area as well as in other older Amman quarters, such as Jabal Hussein or Markah.

“The international community has become indifferent to the plight of Christians still residing in Iraq, whose numbers are dwindling from nearly a million to less than 400,000 today,” complains Brahim.

Batoul, a woman in her 60s, fled the Iraqi capital only a few months ago. “We owned two buildings in Bagdad. One morning, I woke up and saw that someone had painted a message in bright red on the garden’s wall. It was a threat to kill us if we did not come up with 80,000 dollars. The police asked us to immediately leave the country, saying that they did not have the means to protect us,” she recalls with sadness.

Brahim’s story is similar. “I resigned from my teaching job at a Christian school when Father Youssef Aboudi, our head priest, was killed by militants after being accused of proselytism. The threats did not stop when I stayed home. I eventually had to leave for the sake of my 24-year-old daughter,” he adds.

Many Iraqi refugees escape with few funds, adding to the hardship they face in their land of refuge. Iraqis wishing to obtain a Jordanian residency which allows them to work, for example, have to place about 50,000 US dollars in a special account. Refugees registered with the UNHCR hold asylum-seeker cards, but without residency, the refugees cannot work legally and, therefore, have no access to healthcare and education.

“Living conditions are extremely difficult and expenses run very high. We need as much as 1,000 dollars a month in order to survive, and most of us are not allowed to work without residency cards,” says Brahim. He adds that many can barely afford their 200 dollar monthly rent and so have chosen to move to Lebanon, where the UNHCR refugee process is rumoured to be less time consuming.

Father Moussalli estimates that some 50 percent of Christians visiting his church live in extreme poverty. High unemployment levels and the precarious refugee status exacerbate the feeling of marginalisation in the Christian community.

“We prefer to stay at home and mingle with our people,” admits one Christian on condition of anonymity. To difficult living conditions the priest adds other worries as psychological problems due to the traumas they have been subjected to in Iraq and the lack of certainty in their new life. Problems such as school drop-out, domestic violence, trafficking and exploitation are on the rise.

“Most are in limbo, waiting to leave, for Australia, America or Europe,” underscores Oussama, whose family now lives in Australia.

Father Moussalli underlines that relations between the Christian community and the Jordanian state are excellent. “Unlike in Iraq, we have not been victims of persecution because of our beliefs.”

Oussama agrees with the priest’s assessment, saying that when a problem arises they are treated like other residents. However, there have been reports of children being pressured into converting to Islam.

“We remain in Jordan for now in the hope of going back to our homeland,” says Brahim. “We are part of this region’s history and culture, and if we are forced to leave it, it will never be the same.”