Christians Flee Genocide in US held Iraq
- Christians Flee Genocide in US held Iraq
By Jack Fairweather at St. Matthew's Monastery near Mosul
One of the most ancient monasteries in the world, St Matthew's, stands on a
barren mountainside in northern Iraq, its last inhabitant a crusty old
Syrian Orthodox priest. Nestled between sandstone crags with views of the
hills around ancient Nineveh, now called Mosul, it looks like the final
redoubt of the Christian world.
Seven thousand monks used to worship here; now there is just one, Father Ada
This thinning of the ranks has taken centuries, he said, but in the valleys
Iraq's Christian community, targeted with especial ferocity by Islamic
extremists for the past year, is disappearing rapidly.
Churches have been bombed, priests kidnapped and Christian neighbourhoods
subjected to random shootings, the terrorists' revenge for the community's
shared religion with the "Christian" invaders.
According to Church leaders, some 300,000 Christians - roughly a quarter of
the population - have fled their homes since the US-led invasion.
It is too early to speak of a humanitarian crisis, with many from the
community, one of Iraq's more affluent, able to leave the country in
civilised fashion or find shelter in the Kurdish-controlled north. But in
the minds of Church leaders there is little doubt as to the nature of the
"It's genocide. You can see it with your own eyes," said Bishop Putres
Harbori, head of the Christian community in Dohuk, near the Turkish border,
where 350 families have found sanctuary.
Many fear that Iraq's ancient Christian community is leaving for ever, some
nostalgic for better times under Saddam Hussein. Life was good when the
Ba'athists were in charge, said Paula Sliwa, 71, one of 60,000 Christians to
flee Mosul in recent months.
He belongs to the Assyrian Church, one of several sects in the city tracing
their history to Job preaching to the ungodly. He, his wife and five
children used to live with 100 other families near the Shaleeka Cunta church
on the western bank of the Euphrates.
Iraq's small Christian community has a history of collaboration with the
powers-that-be in Baghdad, first with the British in the 1920s, then with
Saddam's regime, which boasted the Christian Tariq Aziz as one of its most
powerful leaders. Christians often worked in the luxury business, selling
alcohol and running beauty parlours.
"I have a large house and two cars," said Mr Sliwa, formerly a well paid
government official. "We never had any trouble." But the Christian community
in Mosul has been shaken by a wave of vicious attacks, including five car
bombs detonated outside churches, killing more than 20, in one month.
Anti-Christian graffiti was daubed on church walls and inflammatory CDs sold
in the market. Regular gun attacks began in Christian areas of the city,
with several priests kidnapped and told that, as Christians, they were on
the side of the American invaders.
"We were used to living in hell," said Mr Sliwa. Then a neighbour told him
that his two sons had been killed by the latest attack. "My son's car was
300 metres away. They were slumped in their seats, covered in blood," he
said. "The terrorists had shot at any car in the neighbourhood, knowing they
would kill Christians."
Mr Sliwa and the rest of his family fled to Angkawr, one of a number of
Christian communities in the Kurdish-protected north. That evening his house
in Mosul was broken into and ransacked.
Stories like his are common in Angkawr, where 150 families shelter from the
oppression and fear that forced them to flee homes in Mosul, Baghdad and
They say a new breed of al-Qa'eda-inspired terrorists, rather than the
former Ba'athists, are behind the attacks. Iraqi police are powerless to
protect the community, say families, and US forces rarely intervene, not
wanting to be seen to be siding with Christians and thereby exposing the
troops to more violence.
For their part, Christian leaders in Iraq oscillate between calling the
attacks "ethnic cleansing" and stressing that Christians are suffering along
with others in Iraq.
Angkawr, a town of 35,000 people, is defended by guards and concrete
barriers. Residents, along with the refugees, want to leave the country as
fast as possible, with Syria, Jordan, Europe and America the popular
Saed Alexis, a local business leader, said: "There is not a person who
wouldn't leave Iraq if they could. In five years there will be no one left."
Source: http://telegraph.co.uk (8 Jan 2005)