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Christians in the Muslim World

Christians Swallowed up by the Iraqi Night

 

 

 

 

Baghdad fell on 9 April 2003 and Saddam Hussein was overthrown by American troops – a decisive turning point. More than four years later, Iraq is the victim of mourning and by now a dark night envelops this country. The country is in a terrible state of chaos and decay. Removed from the political game, put at the margins as a community, the Christians are the victims of every kind of vexation and are regularly subjected to painful situations. At least two hundred thousand have fled from the capital, Baghdad. And in all about four hundred thousand Christians have taken the road of exile because of kidnappings, ransom demands, murders, destruction, assaults on people’s possessions and their property, violence, threats, and intimidation. In short, a lack of security that is unprecedented. One speaks about a form of Christianity that is a threatened species (1).

 

 

 

Thirty churches have been the targets of attacks with car bombs, often in a co-ordinated way and in more than one city at a time, for example the attacks on the first day of August of 2004 and Sunday, 29 January 2006 (2) (Baghdad, Mossul, Kirkuk, Bassora). In 2004 alone, fourteen churches were attacked. Priests have been kidnapped and murdered, for example Boulos Iskandar, an Orthodox Syriac priest of the Church of Sant’Efrem in Mossul, who was decapitated on 12 October 2006 (3). Mundher Aldayr, a Protestant pastor in Mossul, who was assassinated on 26 November 2006. Four days after the murder his body was found with the marks of a bullet to the head. Two Chaldean religious, respectively aged seventy-nine and eighty-five, were murdered with multiple stab wounds in their home in Kirkuk on 29 March 2007. In April 2007 extremists threatened to set fire to churches if crosses are not removed from religious buildings in Baghdad. According to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), pressure is applied to Christians to convert to Islam. On Monday 23 April 2007 a bomb exploded for the first time in the Christian village of Tel-Esqof, which is in the plane of Ninive, not far from Mossul, and killed twenty Assyrian-Chaldean Christians, with many wounded as well. In the same way, there have been attacks on the headquarters of the Assyrian-Chaldean organisations. Woman are obliged to wear a veil, shops owned by Christians are set on fire, and students have been attacked in the universities, especially in Mossul and Baghdad.

 

 

 

Bassora has been practically emptied of its Christian population. In relation to the collapse of the machinery of the Iraqi state and the anarchy that now reigns, Msgr. Louis Sako, the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, declared in May 2006: ‘we have gone from dictatorship to anarchy. The law no longer exists, the police are very weak, the army is being formed, and the strongest of all are the terrorists’(4).

 

 

 

The Catholic Syriac Archbishop of Baghdad declared in April 2007: ‘the situation in Baghdad is critical: lack of security, car bombs, every sort of explosive sown here and there, kidnappings etc. Very many families have been darkened by mourning, others have abandoned Baghdad to go to the north of the country or leave it altogether. All of this reduces the number of our faithful and most of those who stay are poor families’.

 

 

 

At the same time, the Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk declared that what the Christians have undergone in terms of threats and exile, robbery, kidnappings and death, was extraneous to Iraqi, humanistic and Islamic values. As a result, to want to empty the country of its Christians would be a great loss. On 23 April 2007 he launched the following cry of alarm to the Catholic agency Asia News: ‘in Iraq the Christians are dying, the Church is disappearing under constant persecutions, threats and violence perpetrated by extremists who do not intend to leave us any other choice: than conversion or exile’. The substitute Secretary General of the United Nations declared in April 2007 ‘more than eight million Iraqi civilians have urgent need of humanitarian aid’ (5). On 15 February 2007 the European Parliament passed a resolution which called on the twenty-seven member States to engage in greater solidarity towards the Iraqi refugees.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Mass Exodus

 

 

 

 

Despite this cry of pain, the number of Christians who abandon the country is only increasing and they amount to 40% of the Iraqis who have fled. In Mossul, which has only 3% of the Christians of the country, 30% of the faithful have been forced to leave their homes. Baghdad has been practically emptied of more than a half of its Christian population who have chosen the north of the country or have left the country altogether. Indeed, hundreds of families of many neighbourhoods of Baghdad have left the city to find refuge in the Christian villages of the plane of Mossul or in Kurdistan, regions which are relatively safer, or to look for asylum in Syria and Jordan, waiting to move to the West. Out of about 800,000 Christians, more than 350,000 have already taken the road of exile (Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iran). The testimonies that have been gathered from these refugees provide an intolerable picture of the situation: one that is frightening and terrifying. Other Christians are displaced persons within the country itself. For example, the Christian city of Ankawa, near to Erbil, in the north of the country, has a large number of Christians who left Baghdad. More than 15,000 families have settled in the north of the country. The neighbourhood of Dora (6), at one time the Christian centre of Baghdad, has been emptied of three-quarters of its Christian population and its seven churches have closed their doors. The number of Iraqi refugees in the West is growing rapidly. The bulletin œuvre d’Orient wrote in December 2006: ‘Christianity in Iraq has been decimated or is wandering without documents in the hope of finding acceptance in Western countries which it still believes, in good faith, are Christian countries!’ (7). Reference is made to an authentic campaign of persecution against Iraqi Christians.

 

 

 

The day after the murder of Father Boulos Iskandar, the priest of the Church of Sant’Efrem in Mossul, the Council of Bishops of Ninive published (on 12 October 2006) the following communiqué: ‘our appeal is directed to all good Iraqis; we appeal to the honour of the chiefs of the tribes of the region of Ninive, to their notables, to their wise men and to their intellectuals; we appeal to the honour of our venerable brothers, men of religion and preachers of the mosques and the churches, and call Christians and Muslims to common concrete action, hand in hand, in mutual respect, to help each other and to safeguard the life of the community, in peace and harmony, in resemblance of our fathers; and we call on them to redouble their efforts to find a solution to the dramatic situation that intruders would like to impose on our country and our united people’. But has this appeal been listened to? (8)

 

 

 

Faced with constant threats and the kidnapping of the rector and vice-rector of the Great Saint-Pierre Seminary of Baghdad in September and December 2006 (9), the Chaldean Church decided to transfer (provisionally) the seminary and the faculty of theology and philosophy (Babel College) (10) to Iraqi Kurdistan. This pontifical college contains a rich library and rare manuscripts. In this way, the great religious centres are saying farewell to Baghdad. They are abandoning the district of Dora to move to Ankawa, hoping to find a safer region (11). These two institutions, which closed in Baghdad in September 2006, recommenced their activities in the north of Iraq on 11 January 2007.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madness for Human Reason

 

 

 

 

In a letter sent to the international conference that was held on 3-4 May in Sharm el-Sheikh (Egypt) on the subject of Iraq, the Chaldean bishops of the north of Iraq appealed to the international community to intervene to protect the life of Iraqis. They defined the situation in Iraq as ‘madness for human reason’. As regards the Chaldean Patriarch, Emmanuel III Delly, he strongly accused the Iraqi authorities and foreign forces on 6 May 2007 at Erbil because of their inability to protect Christians. He called for a decisive intervention to stop the haemorrhage of the persecuted Christians of Iraq. He expressed his denunciation in the following terms: ‘the Christians are killed, driven from their homes under the gaze of those who are held to be responsible for their safety’ (12).

 

 

 

The persecution of the Christians, he said in his homily given in the Church of Mar Quardagh, is not due only to the Iraqi government, it has also come from outside the country and this constitutes an attack on the dignity of the people of Iraq. He used hard words in relation to the Americans whom he defined as occupiers: ‘they came without our consent and we do not agree with what they have done and with what they are doing to our country’. For his part, Mar Dinkha IV, the Patriarch of the Eastern Assyrian Church, addressed the Iraqi authorities through the satellite channel Ishtar TV on 10 May 2007 in the following terms: ‘we will not keep quiet’. Given the gravity of the situation, the two Patriarchs, that is to say the Patriarch of the Assyrians and the Patriarch of the Chaldeans, on 10 May adopted a joint statement in which they declared: ‘the Christians are the victims of blackmail, of kidnappings and of forced deportations in numerous regions of Iraq, and in particular in those regions that are under the control of the “Islamic State of Iraq”’ (13). The two prelates stressed their surprise at the extension of the influence of Al Qaeda which ‘by now attacks the neighbourhoods of Baghdad, while the government keeps silent and does not take firm steps to stop this expansion’.

 

 

 

Following this pressure, the Iraqi government on 22 May 2007 made public a declaration in which it condemned the attacks on the Christians and expressed its support for them: ‘the Iraqi Cabinet has considered the problem of the threats and expulsions by terrorist groups that damage Christian families in Baghdad. The Cabinet has expressed its full support to providing all the help that is needed to protect them and to offer them all aid in facing up to this threat, which is rejected by our orthodox Islamic religion and by the clement Iraqi society in all its components – especially as regards the relationship with our Christian brothers’. But all of this has not had any real effect.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What Future?

 

 

 

 

Despite this climate of insecurity and chaos, the Christians continue to challenge the dangers and to bear witness in Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mossul, not to mention the north of the country, which is under Kurdish jurisdiction and where the Christians experience relative security, although they are not safe against invasions of their lands by the Kurds. They are represented in the Kurdis National Assembly which was elected on 30 January 2005 (they have five deputies (14) out of a total of 111) and are present in the machinery of the state. For that matter, the Iraqi Christian review al-Fikr al-Masihi (Christian Thought), which has been published uninterruptedly since 1964, was awarded in March 2007 the Gold Medal of the International Catholic Union of the Press (ICUP). Unanimously appreciated and published in Arabic, this review survived the worst crisis in the history of Iraq. Reaching all levels of Iraqi society, al-Fikr al-Masihi has become a point of reference for Christians, Muslims and other religions.

 

 

 

Twenty-thousand Christians engage in activities of various kinds (15) around Msgr. Louis Sako in Kirkuk (16), a very sensitive city, whose ethno-demographic characteristics were altered by Saddam Hussein (forced deportations of the Kurd populations, Arabisation, the settlement of Arabs from the south of the country) and whose status remains uncertain. At the end of 2007 (17) a census of the population, followed by a referendum, should decide its future on the basis of Constitutional texts now in force. If one project is implemented, the worst could happen (18). The autonomy of Kurdistan, effective since 1992 and supported by the Iraqi Constitution (arts. 117 and 141), could be transformed into independence, opening up the road to the exacerbation of tensions; indeed to the unknown. The Arab populations, which feel increasingly insecure, are beginning to abandon the city because they are afraid of what tomorrow will bring, and Kurds have moved into the city. For that matter, in the province of Ninive, around Mossul, the Christians, who are very active, are tempted by the concession of an autonomous administrative region able to assure their security and protection within a homogenous area, as was the case in 1925. A project for the creation of an autonomous region has been presented (19). However, these projects are far from obtaining unanimous agreement because it is feared that they will lead to the creation of ghettos. Others are asking for the region to reunited with Kurdistan.

 

 

 

In this area, as regards the local authorities, the Iraqi Constitution guarantees the administrative, political, cultural and educational rights of the various Iraqi nationalities, amongst whom are the Assyrian-Chaldeans (art. 125). For that matter, section V (arts. 116-121) of the Fundamental Law of Iraq attributes broad decentralisation to the regions and provinces. In virtue of article 117.2, new regions can be created with legislative powers, executive powers (including security forces), and judicial powers, as well as representation with Iraqi embassies abroad. (arts. 120 and 121). In this way, the Christians hope to have a safe haven. In this region of Ninive, a Catholic Syriac seminary that bears the name of Sant’Efrem came into existence in Bakhdida (Karakosh) on 9 Novembre 2006. It was founded by the Catholic Syriac Archbishop of Mossul, Msgr. Georges Casmoussa.

 

 

 


 

(1) Cf. Damien McElroy,

 

‘Christians Fleeing Iraq after Death Threats’, Daily Telegraph, London 8 May 2007;

 

 

see also Paul Isaac, ‘The Assault

 

on Assyrian Christians’,

 

International Herald Tribune,

 

Paris, 10 May 2007.

 

 

 

(2) On this day six churches

 

were attacked. Three people

 

were killed, including

 

a boy of fourteen. There were

 

also many wounded.

 

 

 

(3) Following pressure

 

and a climate of terror,

 

two Assyrian-Orthodox priests

 

of the diocese of Mossul

 

abandoned the priesthood.

 

 

 

(4) Cf. 20 Minutes, 24 May 2006.

 

 

 

(5) Cf. the weekly Marianne,

 

24-27 April 2007.

 

 

 

(6) The neighbourhood of Dora

 

is situated to the north-west

 

of the capital and is

 

ten kilometres from Baghdad.

 

 

 

(7) N. 745, Paris, p. 270.

 

 

 

(8) The European Parliament

 

unanimously adopted on 6 April

 

2006 a resolution on the Assyrian

 

community in Iraq and on

 

the situation in Iraqi prisons,

 

a resolution in which it strongly

 

condemned all the acts

 

of violence perpetrated against

 

the Assyrians (Chaldeans, Syriacs

 

and other Christian minorities)

 

in Iraq, exhorted the Iraqi

 

authorities to protect them from

 

discrimination, and called for

 

an immediate improvement

 

in their situation in the field

 

of security and for a facilitation of

 

the return

 

and the reintegration

 

of refugees to and in a safe

 

context in which their customs and

 

their ways of life are respected.

 

The text calls for the participation of the Christians of Iraq

 

in the reconstruction and the

 

administration of their country

 

and their villages in the north of

 

Iraq and elsewhere in the region

 

in order to conserve their cultural, religious and ethnic identity in a

 

country that is not partitioned.

 

This document specifies

 

that these Assyrians ‘constitute

 

an ancient and indigenous people

 

which, after being persecuted

 

and forced to emigrate, is very

 

vulnerable, whose culture runs

 

the risk of disappearing’.

 

 

 

(9) Samy al Raiys and Salem Basel

 

Yaldo.

 

 

 

(10) This college was occupied

 

by the American army, a fact

 

that provoked much dismay.

 

 

 

(11) Father Bachar Warda is responsible for the Saint-Pierre Seminar.

 

 

 

(12) Cf. Anne-Bénédicte Hoffer, ‘Le

 

patriarche chaldéen critique les Américains’, La Croix, 11 May 2007.

 

 

 

(13) The reference here is to Sunnite

 

rebels who are well rooted in

 

Baghdad and who have relations

 

with Al Qaeda and are principally

 

responsible for the acts of violence

 

against Christians (looting,

 

kidnappings, forced exodus).

 

 

 

 

(14) These deputies are divided between the Assyrian Democratic

 

Movement (2), the Chaldean

 

Cultural Society (1), the Chaldean party, the Democratic Union (1), and the Democratic Party

 

Bet-Nahrain (1). There is

 

a Christian minister in

 

the Kurdish government. As regards

 

the Iraqi parliament, there are five

 

Christians,

 

including the general

 

secretary of the Assyrian Democratic

 

Movement, Yonadan Kanna.

 

 

 

 

(15) The Chaldeans have four schools,

 

two of which are for infants,

 

and programmes in Syriac

 

on the television and radio. Two

 

Christians represent the community

 

in the municipal assembly.

 

 

 

 

(16) The city of Kirkuk, which is the

 

capital of the province (muhafazat)

 

of Taamim, has a multi-ethnic

 

composition: Kurds, Arabs (both

 

Sunnites and Shiites), Turcomans,

 

Assyrian-Chaldeans and Armenians.

 

This city is full of castles and citadels.

 

Here is to be found the tomb

 

of the prophet Daniel and this city is

 

an important cultural centre of the

 

Turcomans who have been present

 

in this area since the twelfth century.

 

It is located 225 km north-east of

 

Baghdad, has a million inhabitants,

 

and is very rich in oil. The Kurds are

 

very ambitious and

 

claim this city as

 

well as its province because they see

 

it as an integral part of Kurdistan

 

from a historical and geographical

 

point of view, and as their capital.

 

The Arabs, Turcomans

 

(supported by Turkey) and the other

 

minorities have ferociously opposed

 

this proposal. Some Turcomans

 

campaign for a Turcoman province.

 

To this are added the fears of Turkey

 

which says that it is ready to intervene

 

militarily, if this is necessary, if the

 

status of the city is modified in favour

 

of the Kurds and if Kirkuk is annexed

 

to Kurdistan. For that matter, in

 

recent times this city has experienced an explosion in ethnic tensions

 

and security has notably deteriorated.

 

 

 

 

(17) Cf. article 58 of the Provisional

 

Constitution of Iraq of 8 March 2004 which, under the influence

 

of the Kurds, was incorporated into the new Constitution that was

 

adopted on 12 October 2005 (art. 140).

 

 

 

(18) Some are applying pressure

 

to annul the referendum.

 

 

 

(19) This region, which is predominantly Christian, is also inhabited

 

by Muslim Arabs, by Yazids

 

(translator’s note: the members

 

of an ancient Middle Eastern

 

religion), by Kurds, and by Shabaks

 

(an ethnic minority that is Shiite).

 

 

 

 

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