With heavy heart, Christians leave Baghdad

1.jpgBy Jacques Clement (AFP)
BAGHDAD — Bassam Anis was for a long time an optimist, but persistent attacks against his Christian community convinced him that his home country, Iraq, no longer offered him solace. So, on April 30, he fled.

While his solution may seem extreme, it is by no means uncommon.

On October 31, a group of Al-Qaeda commandos stormed a Syriac Catholic church in Baghdad, with the ensuing siege killing 44 worshippers, two priests and seven Iraqi security force officers.

The attack was the worst against Iraq’s Christian community since the 2003 US-led invasion, and countless members of the minority have since fled the country.

For Bassam, himself Syriac Orthodox, the attack hit particularly close to home — among the worshippers killed was his friend, Raghad.

“Before, I was optimistic,” the 26-year-old biology teacher told AFP before his departure, sat in a restaurant in central Baghdad.

“I never imagined I would leave Iraq, because I could not imagine starting my life over again.”

He continued: “Since the attack, though, I’ve begun to realise there is no hope in this country any more. It is terrible to think like this, but leaving is the only solution.”

Bassam then recounted the Biblical parable of Lot, who reluctantly fled Sodom with his family after being told to do so by God as the city was being destroyed.

Eight years after the US-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein and his regime, violence remains high in Iraq, despite having dropped off since its peak in 2006 and 2007.

Even so, the Iraqi government has insisted that local forces are capable of maintaining security, and has said that the situation has improved as violence has declined.

But despite such assurances, thousands of Iraqis continue to flee the country every month in search of a better life, according to UN figures.

Bassam remains traumatised by the church carnage.

For the six hours that insurgents held worshippers hostage, he stood anxiously outside alongside a colleague who was receiving updates on the phone from his uncle who was trapped inside.

Struggling to hold back tears, he recalled Raghad, who had not only been married just 40 days earlier to Bassam’s childhood friend Iyad, but was pregnant when a grenade thrown by one of the hostage-takers killed her.

“After that attack,” he said, “my life turned black.”

“I no longer celebrated religious holidays, or those of my Muslim friends.”

Bassam said he has dreamt of Raghad often. In one such dream, she told him she felt abandoned by her husband and his family, who fled to Amman in the wake of the attack.

“So, I lit a candle for her at the church until it burned out.”

Conflicted, Bassam eventually decided to leave Iraq, ignoring the voices of Christian leaders who exhorted followers to stay, to avoid “playing into the hands of terrorists.”

“We do not need anyone to tell us what to do,” Bassam said, mocking fellow worshippers who remove their crosses from their vehicles’ rear-view mirrors to avoid giving away their religious affiliation, and then feeling guilty for doing so, in a bid to illustrate life in Iraq.

“We are targets. We cannot ignore this,” he noted.

The October 31 attack provoked outrage among the international community, and among Iraqi political leaders, who roundly said it was important to protect the historic Christian minority.

But since then, several attacks — most of them at night — have targeted Christians in Baghdad and elsewhere.

“Until we can finally sleep soundly, we can not say that we are safe,” Bassam said.

In a sign of his growing distrust of his countrymen, he did not reveal his plans to flee along with his mother even to his neighbours, and for months secretly planned and organised his eventual departure.

Initially, he had hoped to leave on April 9, in a symbolic move to mark the date that Saddam’s regime fell, but the sale of his house and car were delayed.

“It was a disastrous day for Iraq,” he recalled. “Not because our life was better before, but because it was so much worse afterwards.”

Bassam eventually boarded a flight to Jordan on April 30. He was clutching a one-way ticket