Iraq’s Christians consumed by fear

By Tracey Shelton
QARAQOSH, Iraq – Each day before she leaves for work, Ekhlas Elia Bawood covers her head with the traditional hijab. She does this not because she is a Muslim, but because she lives in fear. Christians in Iraq are increasingly targeted for their beliefs. A lifelong resident of Mosul, the most dangerous city in Iraq, Bawood said Christian homes in her neighborhood are attacked by bomb explosions at least two or three times each week. With dwindling numbers and little support, the few remaining Christians living in Mosul are careful to conceal their faith.

“We always must be careful who we talk to and suspicious of anyone we pass on the street,” said Bawood.

The escalating violence against Christians has called religious

leaders to act. A Copenhagen summit discussing these attacks was headed by the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq and attended by Iraq’s most influential Sunni, Shi’ite and Christian leaders. The result was a fatwa, or religious edict, calling all Iraqi Muslims to end the violence.

The fatwa, which was announced in mosques across the country, “prohibits any assault on believers of religions that co-exist in Muslim countries, whether by killing, displacement, bloodshed or violation of the sanctity of homes and assets.”

Even so, Sunni mullah Tahir Bamoky of the Omar Bin Khatab mosque in Halabja said many Sunnis, particularly in central Iraq, have rejected the fatwa issued by their religious leaders.

“The fatwa will have a greater influence in certain areas of Iraq,” he said. “The Shi’ite Muslims have a deep respect for the fatwa, but the Sunni’s of Iraq are divided and not all follow the fatwa.”

Bamoky called for greater cooperation between Muslim leaders and a joint committee to issue united fatwas to deal with the sectarian problems in Iraq.

This call for peace follows the most deadly attack against Christians since the US-led invasion of 2003. Gunmen stormed the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad during a Sunday mass on October 31, killing 52 worshippers and wounding more than 100. The gunmen, wearing suicide vests packed with explosives, terrorized those inside, shooting men, women and children including two priests and a three-year-old boy, before detonating the explosives.

Since then, the violence has escalated with spikes in home invasions, robberies, bombings and kidnappings. The wave of anti-Christian violence has caused most of Bawood’s friends and family to flee the country; she said that 50 of the 60 families in her neighborhood are now gone.

Amnesty International reported last month that threats and attacks against Christian families increased countrywide after the church attack. According to the report, in addition to threatening letters and text messages, methods included “dead birds being nailed to the door in warning, extortion, and offensive graffiti on houses”.

Since 2003, Amnesty International reports have recorded over 70 attacks on Christian churches in Iraq. Around 1,000 Christian civilians have been killed by terrorist attacks, bombings, and assassinations, while many more have suffered harassment, numerous abductions and death threats.

Even amid the mass exodus of Christians, Bawood sat this week in the Mar Behnam Church in Qaraqosh, a Christian town on the outskirts of Mosul, and expressed her conviction to stay in her homeland. Just one day before, a bomb exploded at the front of her home. Bawood said the explosion was one of seven bombs detonated in her area within the past few days.

“In the past year, I lost a lot of my friends and relatives. Many were killed by al-Qaeda,” she said, adding that around 25 close friends and relatives have been murdered and many more have fled after receiving threatening letters from hardline Islamic insurgents.

So far, the perpetrators have mostly escaped justice. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report for 2010 on International Religious Freedom claimed, “Very few of the perpetrators of violence committed against Christians and other religious minorities in the country were punished; arrests following a murder or other crimes were rare.”

Archbishop Georges Casmoussa, head of the Syriac Catholic church in Mosul, said around 1,000 families have fled to his and other parishes in Qaraqosh because of the violence and lack of action against the perpetrators. The Baghdad church attack has caused many to question the ability and will of Iraqi authorities, and even the United States, to protect them.

“Americans came here to bring us democracy. What democracy? To be allowed to kill without any responsibility?” said Casmoussa. “Freedom is not to do what we have in mind. Now it is a jungle. Whoever is toughest, he will kill the other.”

Casmoussa, who has himself was been kidnapped in 2005 and had a knife held to his throat “in the name of God,” said since 2003, the situation for Christians in Iraq has dramatically deteriorated. In 2008, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and murdered. That same year, an Assyrian orthodox priest was shot dead by unknown gunmen.

“We didn’t have rights more than now, but we had security,” said Casmoussa, while in the shadow of the six heavily armed guards who protect his home and office. “When you are a minority you have to accept some hard situations, but when you are faced with death or killing you start to ask, why? How can I tell families to stay when there is no security?”

At St John’s Church in Suliemaniyah, in the relatively peaceful region of Iraqi Kurdistan, 120 families have taken shelter following the Baghdad church attack. Most were among the congregation gathered on Sunday to partake of the Holy Communion and commemorate those who died.

“I had family inside the church [in Baghdad on October 31] that were taken hostage,” said a mother of two who was afraid to be named. “They called me from inside the church. ‘They are killing us,’ they screamed. I could hear the gunfire.”

All four of the woman’s family members were shot dead during the siege. Ten days later, after further attacks and threats on Christian homes, the remaining family members fled their comfortable home in Baghdad to the refuge of a packed dormitory at St John’s. Thousands more have fled the country altogether.

Christian leaders estimate that the population of Iraqi Christians has halved from around 800,000 in 2003, to under 400,000 today. By all accounts, Christians are leaving the country in droves.

Archbishop Louis Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Kirkuk, and one of Iraq’s most prominent non-Muslim religious scholars, is not optimistic about the future.

“The future is unknown. The church has no clear vision. Christians are divided. They are leaving. If there is no security, no stable future for them, I think, little by little Christians will leave and there will be no more Christians in Iraq and this is a pity. With their departure, their history and their heritage will go with them,” said Sako, in an interview at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kirkuk. “I don’t see a real future for Christians because the whole country is boiling,” he added.

The majority of Iraqi Christians are ethnic Chaldeans, Assyrians or Syriacs with a history dating back to the 1st century AD. Despite this legacy, as the violence continues to rage and hundreds continue to flee, the future for Iraq’s Christians looks grim.

“Christianity was here before Islam by 600 years. We are recognized as one of the builders of this society, but we have been pushed into a corner. We feel we are not desired here,” said Casmoussa. “What future is left here for our children?”

Tracey Shelton is a freelance journalist in Iraq.

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