CHRISTIANS FEAR PERSECUTION IN THE NEW IRAQ
- CHRISTIANS FEAR PERSECUTION IN THE NEW IRAQ
BAGHDAD, Iraq July 26, 2004 On a Sunday afternoon, attendance at mass at St. Peter and Paul's Cathedral in Baghdad was decidedly thin.
A handful of Syrian Orthodox loitered on the steps of the church afterward, women removing their dainty white lace veils as they chatted with friends. For many, church on Sunday is the only time they can really socialize because of safety fears.
Most Christians blame concern over a tumultuous security situation for keeping them away from church, but it's only a small part of a greater, and growing, predicament.
Numbering some 750,000, Christians are a minority here, and even as secular Iraqis worry about the growing tide of Islamic fundamentalism, so long repressed under Saddam Hussein, their Christian compatriots are feeling the effects closer to home. They're anxious about their place in the new world around them, one that often sees them as collaborators with their American occupiers.
The new Iraq seems destined to be dominated by a mix of Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites, leaving many Christians wondering if it is time to leave.
"It never used to be something we talked about at work," said one woman, who asked not to be named, butterfly clips pulling blond streaks away from her face. "But I hear it all the time from the Muslims in my office they say we should be part of the insurgency, they say we should all fight together against the Americans, that we should be involved."
"You know, we're all Iraqis in the end, we need to stick together," said one man, who was quickly shushed by his impatient wife, juggling an infant on one hip and stroking the hair of her pigtailed daughter with her free hand.
An initial subtle difference in the way her Muslim co-workers in a government office treated her soon evolved into full-fledged disdain, she claims.
"We feel it, we feel it so much more. Suddenly they don't like our clothes, we can't wear what we like, I'm afraid for our daughters," she said.
Now she wants to leave.
"Give me a ticket out of here, I would love it!" she exclaimed.
It's a delicate issue for Christians here who want to be seen to be supporting their reborn nation's attempts at clawing back toward a better way of life,
specially when for many, the worsening circumstances was undeniable.
They were able to practice their faith in relative security, free from persecution under Saddam Hussein, and threats from Islamic radicals about liquor stores and beauty salons were always firmly dealt with.
Eighteen-year-old Fadi, studying accounting at Baghdad's university, spoke of learning to hold his tongue when Muslim students turned on him and his Christian friends.
"They think that because the Americans are Christians and we're Christian that we must be collaborating with them," he said. "There's more of them than there are of us, so we have to pull back without answering back."
Christians who fled Iraq before the war are in neighboring Jordan and Syria, waiting and watching before deciding whether to return, said Bishop Andreas at the Assumption of the Virgin Mary Church.
"They're very afraid," he admitted.
Of the 750,000 Christians in Iraq, the majority are Chaldean Roman Catholic, the rest Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Assyrian. Most live in Baghdad and its outskirts and some dwell further to the north.
Islamic radicals have warned Christians running liquor stores to shut down their sales, and have turned their sights on fashion stores and beauty salons. The increasing attention on this minority community has many within looking for a way out.
Local newspapers reported that last week, the Chaldean Patriarch, the Rev. Emmanuel Delly, met with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and told him that Christians wanted to flee the country because they feared for their lives in the new Iraq.
Allawi's office wouldn't comment on the report and Delly reacted furiously when confronted with the question.
"How can you ask me a question like that? Do I ask you who you visit?" he raised his voice at a reporter, knocking down a tape recorder.
He later softened to say the visit was "merely to congratulate him and his new government and to wish him all the best." He told his diocese to stand firm.
"I tell them that we love our nation, and we will work for a better Iraq," he said, fingering a large silver crucifix around his neck. He said he didn't know anything about threats to Iraqi Christians and their livelihoods.
Many Iraqi Christians are in neighboring countries applying with foreign embassies for travel visas to countries like Australia, said one Christian woman, who also declined to be named.
Shaking the hands of the last worshippers to leave the Cathedral, Father John could only shake his head at the dwindling number of parishioners coming to Mass each week. He said that while Saddam Hussein dragged the country through "war after war," Christians felt safer when he was in charge.
"We have no future in Iraq now," he said.