Iraqi Christians: Round trip to Death Street

cross_window_l1.jpgImage: pattiane, Flickr
Iraqi Christian refugees flee the horror of sectarian violence at home to struggle with life in Lebanon.

By Simon Roughneen in Lebanon for ISN Security Watch (20/08/08)

“My friend was stopped at a checkpoint on the road to Irbil from Baghdad. The people in the car had to show their ID cards to the masked men.

“They could see she was Christian from her name. They dragged her from the car, pushed her to her knees and put a gun to her head.

“They told her to convert to Islam, or die. She refused and started praying out loud. But they did not kill her, not straight away. They raped her and then she was shot in the head.”

Pascale (her name and the names of her family members have been changed to protect their identity) has recounted this tale too many times to cry any more. However this story, as elemental as it is heart-rending, is not unique among the estimated 2 million Iraqi refugees who have fled their country since 2003.

Maybe the heroism of this story loses some of its currency with each telling, or maybe each individual tragedy gets lost in Iraq’s deluge of blood-letting.

But before this reporter can overcome his pitiful inability to cope with what has just been said and ask more details, Pascale’s husband Paulos picks up the thread.

“Our neighborhood in Mosul was nicknamed Death Street. Two weeks before we left, my next-door neighbor was shot in his home. The terrorists said ‘give the child to your wife.’ When he did this, they shot him four or five times, in front of the woman and her little one.”

Pausing momentarily, he adds, “Later, two of my sisters were widowed by car bombs.”

The family has spent the past year in a claustrophobic one-room apartment in Beirut’s outskirts. Kitchen and living room by day, bedroom by night, the entire flat is a little bigger than the average western bathroom and opens into a covered car park.

Lebanon hosts some 50,000 Iraqis while neighboring Syria and Jordan have around 1.5 million and 500,000, respectively, though these are high-end estimates used by the governments in Damascus and Amman, and are disputed by refugee agencies who posit lower figures.

But in global terms, displacement in and from Iraq outranks Sudan and is second only to Afghanistan.

Of Iraqis in Lebanon, 30 percent are Christian, with over half Shia, reflecting long-standing links between the respective communities in both countries. The rest are Sunni – around 17 percent of the total – and the balance minorities such as Mandeans and Yazidi.

Iraq’s Chaldeans speak a form of Aramaic, the language used by Jesus Christ. Chaldeans converted to Christianity in the 1st century AD and have been in Iraq ever since. Like Lebanon’s Maronites – the majority Christian community in that country – the Chaldeans are part of the Roman Catholic Church.

Michel Kasdano, a retired Lebanese armed forces general, told ISN Security Watch, “In the past six months, most of the arrivals have been from Mosul as security there deteriorates.”

Kasdano leads a diocesan team that helps Christian Iraqis arriving in Lebanon, providing financial and educational support, medical aid and assistance in finding accommodation and employment, all mirroring similar work by Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups.

A precipitous decline in Iraq’s ancient Christian population has left approximately 450,000 to 700,000 in the country. Estimates vary but between 300,000-500,000 have fled since the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, while a similar number left during the final 15 years of Baath dictatorship in Mesopotamia.

In February 2008, Christian persecution in Iraq – and Mosul in particular – claimed its highest-profile victim: Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paul Faraj Rahho. His body was found days after he and three companions were ambushed by gunmen, and a month after the archbishop had called for Christians to cease paying the jizya, once a tax paid by Christians and Jews to Muslim rulers. Since the fall of Saddam, the jizya has morphed into a protection racket extorted by paramilitaries, with the proceeds apparently funding terrorist groups.

Kasdano added that “30 percent of the attacks [on Christians] are criminal opportunists who see a weakened and vulnerable minority.”

The start of the exodus
The refugee flight started in 2005, two years after the US invasion of Iraq, as hoped-for reconstruction and nation building gave way to al-Qaida-infiltrated sectarian and ethnic chaos that the US and its allies seemed incapable of handling until the recent “surge” orchestrated by General David Petraeus. The move saw local Sunni leaders partner with the US-led coalition to drive foreign al-Qaida affiliates from the country, abetted by Iran-induced Shiite militia ceasefires.

The number of Iraqis leaving the country skyrocketed with the attack on a shrine in Samarra in early 2006, which sparked a de facto sectarian civil war between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. Christians were caught in the middle.

In all, one-in-five Iraqis have left their homes since 2005. However the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 40 percent of Iraqi refugees are Christian — a staggering number considering that Christians made up for only some 4 percent, or 1.5 million, of Iraq’s total pre-invasion population.

The caveat, however, for Iraq’s Christians, is that they are an unprotected minority, and unlike the Sunnis, Shia or Kurds, the Christians do not have a homegrown militia. The US and its allies in Iraq have been shied from protecting Christians, partly due to wariness of offending Iraq’s Muslim majorities.

Paulos recounted to ISN Security Watch that in the vortex of violence and extremism that started 2003, Sunnis aghast at losing power in Iraq told Christians in the area “Your uncles are here, Crusaders.”

But Uncle Sam’s arrival did not do much for Iraqi Christians, with some accusing the US Army of failing to protect them as it feared this would fuel insurgent propagandists.

On the other hand, the US television news program 60 Minutes documented Iraqi Christians asking that US Marines not be deployed near their churches, fearing Sunni or Shia militia reprisals for this alleged “collaboration.”

Paulos laughs, wistfully weighing the pros and cons: “We never expected the Americans to put a soldier at every house.”

When Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met Pope Benedict XVI in July this year, he asked the pontiff to persuade Iraq’s Christians to return to Iraq, and stated his belief that they were not being targeted by Iraq’s violent ethno-religious strife.

But in response to the meeting, Iraqi Christian parliament member Younadam Kanna told the Associated Press that the situation for Christians in Baghdad had improved in recent months but, “in Mosul, the situation is the same as it used to be and it’s getting worse.”

According to Kasdano, “Christian refugees from Iraq do not want to go back, they feel they are being driven out.”

Hardships in a foreign land
Lebanon’s Iraqis face some onerous common challenges, irrespective of the circumstances of their exile. First among those is the Lebanon’s lack of refugee legislation, leaving the Iraqis in a legal no-man’s land.

Stephane Jaquemet of the UNCHR office in Beirut told ISN Security Watch, “Lebanon does not have a refugee law. It treats most Iraqis as illegal immigrants, regardless of their need to be protected as refugees.”

A memorandum of understanding signed by Lebanon and the US in 2003 aimed to loosen procedures, but this was intended for only hundreds of annual arrivals, not the 50,000-plus influx, adding to Lebanon’s long-present 400,000 Palestinian refugees in camps across the country.

“The authorities here will not see Lebanon as an asylum country until the Palestinian issue has been resolved,” Jaquemet said.

For Paulos and Pascale, coping with three children struggling to find schools and friends, with either parent seeking one decent work opportunity, capped by the frustrations and struggles of the asylum system – it all makes for a grinding, stultifying existence.

The family says it has already been turned down for entry to the US. With relatives in Australia and Sweden, options to move to those countries have also been ruled out for now due to the complicated legal issues concerning the number of family members they will take.

Not shy on black humor, Paulos predicts, “We will go to Afghanistan!” But joking aside, unless he finds better paying work, and in turn a more congenial place to live, he even contemplates a return to Iraq, back home to Death Street.

Kasdano counsels otherwise, pointing out that he has heard of a factory owner in East Beirut who needs workers; and of a neighborhood housing hundreds of Iraqis, which means company and community support.

However, Paulos seems at his wits end. “Why not go back? Maybe I will be killed at home, but we are dead living here like this.”