the copenhagen fatwa: end attacks on christians

niqash | Dana Asaad A group of senior Iraqi clerics have issued a joint Shiite, Sunni and Christian fatwa calling for the end of violence against the Christian minority in Iraq. 

They had been meeting at a three-day conference between 12-14 January in the Danish capital, Copenhagen, to discuss the increasing spate of attacks against Iraqi Christians.

The deadliest was the siege on the Our Lady of Salvation Church on 31 October 2010 in Baghdad, which killed more than 50 worshippers, including a priest.

Insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq, a group linked to al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility, saying they would continue to target Iraqi Christians, unless they exerted pressure on a Coptic Christian church in Egypt to release two women reportedly held by the church for trying to convert to Islam.

The Iraqi security forces stepped up measures to protect Christian churches around the country, but there have been further attacks in residential areas.

On 10 November, a series of bombings on Christian homes in Baghdad killed 6 people, and injured 33.

On New Year’s Eve, another attack on 14 homes in Baghdad left 2 Christians dead and 16 wounded.

There are now fears of a return to sectarian violence, which swept Iraq after the US-led invasion in 2003 and reached its peak in 2006 and 2007.

The attacks have reinforced a deep feeling of insecurity among Christians in Iraq, and many have fled to Kurdistan and neighbouring countries or are seeking asylum in the West.

The Iraqi Minister of Displacement and Migration, Dindar Najman Doski, confirms that more than 5,000 Christian families left the country in 2010. Kurdistan’s interior minister, Kareem Sinjari, released a press statement, stating that more than 1,600 Christian families have fled to Kurdistan since the raid on the Baghdad church and subsequent attacks.

According to other sources, 1,400 Iraqi Christian families have sought asylum in Lebanon, and there are similar numbers in countries such as Jordan and Syria.

The UN Office in Turkey has confirmed that the number of Iraqi Christians who have migrated to Turkey has increased significantly in recent months.

Records of the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Istanbul, the major mediator between refugees and Turkish authorities, show that in 2009, about 150 families with more than 600 people arrived in Turkey. In the last few months of 2010, the number of people rose to 12,000.

After Islam, Christianity has the most number of followers in Iraq. The religion is recognized by the Constitution, as is the existence of fourteen Christian holy worship places. Christians live in the main Iraqi cities of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk, as well as in cities in Kurdistan. They speak several languages, including Arabic, Kurdish, Syriac and Armenian.

At the end of the 1980’s, there were nearly two million Christians in Iraq. This number decreased in the 1990’s, after the second Gulf war and the economic siege on Iraq, and again after 2003, with the outbreak of sectarian violence and suicide bombings. Today, there are an estimated 700,000 Christians living in Iraq.

Christian clerics have warned that Iraq may soon be devoid of Christians – just as there are practically no longer any Jews living here. In the mid 1990‘s, there were around 120,000 Jews. But they left because of persecution, and today only 6 Jews remain, all elderly.

“There is a campaign of genocide against Christians in Iraq and we have to find a way of stopping it”, says the Christian MP, Yunadim Kanna, one of the participants at the Copenhagen conference.

Most of those who attended the meeting in Copenhagen were members of the Iraqi interfaith dialogue council, which was set up in 2006. Their names* remained confidential for security reasons until their arrival in the Danish capital, according to the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We invited the most influential Shiite, Sunni and Christian personalities in Iraq”, said the organiser, Canon Andrew White, vicar of the St George’s Anglican church in Baghdad and head of the NGO, British Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME).

“Christians are facing a serious problem, because they do not feel safe in their country and want to leave”, he said, adding that “It is not Islam that is making them afraid, but the threat of terrorism.”

The conference, called the “Emergency Summit for Inter-faith Dialogue in Iraq”, was the second of its kind, after the one held in 2008 in the same city. It was organised with assistance from the Copenhagen Church and funding from the Danish Foreign Ministry.

It ended with the signing of the Copenhagen Relief and National Reconciliation Agreement, which stressed the need to address the targeting of Christians in Iraq and to press the government to activate the recommendations of the Iraqi Council of Representatives in this regard as quickly as possible.

It also called upon the relevant authorities to adopt a moderate religious discourse and to make the incitement of sectarian, religious and cultural hatred a criminal offence. Finally, it recommended that the forthcoming Arab summit conference in Baghdad should put this subject on their agenda.

The conference coincided with the arrest in Copenhagen of five people of planning a terrorist attack on the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which published the controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed on 30 September 2005, that offended and angered the Muslim world, and led to death threats against the cartoonist.

The five suspects were all Swedish residents of Arab origin. One of them – a 26-year-old Iraqi asylum-seeker – was released last Thursday, although he still faces charges against him.

Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on terrorism at the Swedish National Defence College, believes that even though these suspected terrorists were unsuccessful, their impact is clear. “People have become scared and this is the essence of terrorism.”

Certainly, this “essence of terrorism” has been spreading for years among Christians in Baghdad and other provinces of Iraq, which is why they have been fleeing their country in such large numbers.

The question now is whether the Copenhagen fatwa will be able to end the killing of Christians in Iraq and stop their migration. If not, then Iraq will lose one of its ancient communities.

* The participants in Copenhagen were: Sheikh Abdul Latif Hameem, secretary general of the Muslim Scholars and Iraq’s Intellectuals group, Khaled Al-Mulla, al-Sayyed Jawad al-Khoei, Sheikh Abdul-Haleem al-Zuhairi, MP Yunanem Kanna, His Eminence Archbishop, Avak Asadourian, the Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Iraq, MP Majid al-Hafeed, Imam and preacher of the Great Mosque in Sulaymaniyah, Abdul-Razzaq Shamkhi, the representative of the Sabean Mandaeans (from the second day), and Canon Andrew White. Ammar Abu Ragheef, a Shiite clergyman, was unable to attend.