Iraqi Christians forced to leave

By James Palmer – BAGHDAD — Nabil Comanny and his family endured the dead bodies in the streets, the roaming kidnap gangs and the continuing power failures.

The Christian family stayed in their southern Dora neighborhood after their Muslim neighbors fled the daily fighting between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

But when a hand-scrawled note appeared on their door telling them to convert to Islam, pay $300 a month for “protection” or die, they realized they had to leave their home of 11 years.

“We don’t have weapons, and the government doesn’t protect us. What else can we do?” said Mr. Comanny, a 37-year-old journalist.

Islamic militants are increasingly targeting Christians, especially here in the capital, forcing an exodus that has cut deeply into the long-standing minority community.

Although meaningful numbers are hard to come by, the last Iraqi census, conducted in 1987, counted 1 million Christians. National aid groups estimate between 300,000 and 600,000 Christians remain today among an estimated 25 million people.

Mr. Comanny said he began to worry last spring when militants posted documents across the neighborhood ordering all residents to follow strict Islamic law. Among the 18 specific points, women were told they must wear all-enveloping black burqas.

“It’s not our tradition,” Mr. Comanny said. “How can Christian women be expected to do this?”

In the end, most Christian families paid a bribe, Mr. Comanny said, “because it gave them time to prepare to leave. But most can’t afford to keep paying.”

Mr. Comanny, who shared a small house with his mother, three brothers and four sisters, moved his family on the advice of a “sympathetic” acquaintance among the insurgents.

Because militants in Dora frequently attack families returning home to fetch their belongings, Mr. Comanny paid his insurgent contact 1 million Iraqi dinars, or about $800, for safe passage from the neighborhood.

Today, the Comannys live in the New Baghdad section of the capital, where hundreds of Christian families have relocated. The families move cautiously among a majority Shi’ite population, which relies on the Mahdi Army militia for protection.

Christians in Dora once mixed easily with Muslims, sharing cookies at Christmas and joining Muslims for the daily evening dinner during Ramadan.

Amer Awadish, a 47-year-old taxi driver, said those relationships saved his life.

After a handwritten note was delivered to his apartment in December ordering him and his wife, Samia, to leave within two days, a lifelong neighbor appeared at his door. The man, Mr. Awadish said, advised him to leave immediately.

“This man used to kiss my mother on the forehead in public,” Mr. Awadish said, referring to a common gesture of respect toward elderly women. “He was too ashamed to kill me because of that.”

Other obstacles to Iraqi Christians are more subtle than direct threats.

William Warda, the founder of Hamorabi, a Christian-led human rights group in Iraq, said most Christians no longer feel safe embracing their former lifestyle.

“They can’t drink alcohol, or even dress in the fashion they’re accustomed,” Mr. Warda said. “Maybe they can stand this for a year or two, but not their whole lives.”

Many more would leave the country if they felt there was somewhere to go, he said. “If the U.S. and Europe open their doors, the Christians in Iraq will be finished. They will all leave.”

Most Christians in Iraq are Chaldean Catholics who acknowledge the pope’s authority but remain independent from the Vatican. Other denominations include Syrian Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholics. Small groups of Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics also practice, as do Anglicans and evangelicals.

One common thread among most of the groups is a concern that church leaders have not spoken out to protect their rights.

“The church is not defending us,” said Bashar Jamil John, a 24-year-old engineering student at the Baghdad Technical Institute. “This is part of the problem.”

Emmanuel Delly, the Chaldean Catholic patriarch who serves as the Vatican’s representative in Iraq, declined to be interviewed, but the Rev. Mokhlous Shasha, 32, a first-year priest at the Lady of Our Salvation Syrian Catholic Church in central Baghdad, argued that the clergy are as much in danger as those they serve.

“Priests live in the same situations as their parishioners,” said Father Shasha, who added that he never wears his clerical collar into the streets. Since 2006, militants have killed three priests and kidnapped 10 others, church officials said.