Nearly 40,000 Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan and Syria are unlikely to return home any time soon, despite the recent national elections. Lack of safety is their biggest concern. "We voted, but we don't know whether elections will change the situation. If security is restored, then we may return to Iraq. But if there is no improvement, we won't go back," 18-year-old Boutros Chamoun told Christianity Today after Sunday mass at the Church of St. Terese of Little Jesus in the famed Old City sector of Damascus, Syria.
Chamoun fled with his widowed mother and his three siblings to Syria after militants blew up the laundry they ran in Baghdad. Among their clients were U.S. soldiers. The teenager's dark eyes looked anxious as he spoke about the future. "I don't think anyone ruling Iraq will consider the interests of Christians in or out of the country."
He's not alone in his grim assessment. Record numbers of Christians have fled Iraq, prompting worries that their 2,000-year-old presence is being seriously eroded. About 400,000 Iraqi refugees are now in Syria, according to reliable estimates. Only 4,000 are registered with the United Nations. Of the estimated 40,000 Christians who have left Iraq, the greatest number fled after a series of church bombings last August, according to church leaders in Syria and Jordan.
Today there are some 750,000 Christians in Iraqabout 3 percent of the nation's 26 million people. Before the war, the Christian community numbered 1 million. In 1987, there were 1.4 million Christians.
Most of Iraq's Christians are Chaldean Eastern Rite Catholics (though autonomous from Rome, they recognize papal primacy). Other Christian denominations in Iraq include Roman and Syrian Catholics, Assyrians, Presbyterians, Anglicans, evangelicals, and Greek, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox.
Yohanna, an Iraqi university professor, escaped to Damascus with his family because as a Christian and a professional he was a tempting double target. "I don't expect the newly elected politicians in Iraq's first free elections in half a century to help our tiny minority, because to do so would weaken their own position," he explained.
"It breaks our hearts to leave our country. But circumstances have overcome us and we were forced to leave," he said, shaking his head in grief. "Although I aided my Muslim colleagues, they identified me as a crusader because of the American presence."
Asylum at Risk
Less than 150 miles south of Damascus, Iraqi Christian refugees in Amman, Jordan, dream of a fresh start outside Iraq. But that may be thwarted by politics. Chaldean Catholic worshipers in the drab working-class district of Hashimi Shamali told Christianity Today some of their own religious leaders inside Iraq are telling foreign embassies to refuse requests for political asylum from Iraqi Christians. The motive is unclear, but refugees speculate these religious leaders want to maintain the strongest possible Christian influence inside Iraq.
"They are trying to imprison us," one Christian refugee complained, "but they won't help ensure our safety." Boulos, a businessman from Baghdad, said he and his extended family fled to Amman only after terrorists targeted a relative. "Insurgents kidnapped my 18-year-old nephew, Girguis, in Baghdad. They beat him very badly and cut him with knives all over his body," Boulos said, the horror plainly written across his face.
"While he was in captivity, they showed him tapes of insurgents killing Christians. They warned him, 'If you go to church again, we will cut off your head!' We had no other choice but to leave Iraq."
Boulos told CT some Sunni Muslim preachers are telling their followers not to buy homes that Christians are selling, because "soon they will leave them to us for free."
The Baghdad businessman, during my interview, repeated an oft-used phrase: "Sunday comes after Saturday." To Iraqi Christians, it means they may face the same fate as the 100,000 Iraqi Jews forced out of the country in 1951.
Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has condemned the assaults on churches as "hideous crimes." But few if any Muslim leaders have criticized the killings of Christians who work for the U.S. military or sell alcoholic beverages in Iraq.
Abduction and Rape
Militant Muslims are not targeting just Christians. Iraqi Mandaeans (an ancient sect that reveres John the Baptist) argue that their plight is also precarious because Muslims do not put Mandaeans on a par with Jews and Christians as "People of the Book" (the Bible). Mandaeans, who have historic ties to Judaism, estimate their community numbers around 15,000 people.
Militants target Mandaeans with few consequences. "They normally focus on kidnapping Mandaean girls," said 23-year-old Shayma, herself a victim of abduction and rape in Baghdad last May. Shayma, a Baghdad Mandaean, said gunmen abducted her on May 24 last year as she walked to the grocery store in her Zayoona neighborhood. They took her to a rural area where they repeatedly raped and tortured her for eight days. The kidnappers demanded that her family pay a ransom of $10,000 for her release.
"When they tortured me, they shouted, 'You are infidels! Your lives, belongings, and possessions are all permitted for us to take,'" Shayma said weeping.
"I felt like my life was over," she said. "I would stay awake wondering if I would ever see my family again in this life." Although her father paid the ransom, her abductors continued to torment her. When she was released, they told her, "We will come again to kill your brothers and blow up your house." She and her family fled in fear to Jordan and hope to win religious asylum in Australia.
Staying the Course
In stark contrast, several Christian congregations in Iraq are growing, especially ones that worship in buildings without traditional steeples and crosses.
One new fellowship has outgrown its meeting place in Baghdad and aspires to plant a satellite ministry in a nearby suburb. Some Pentecostal Christians report five-fold church growth, topping several hundred new worshipers since the end of the war. An Iraqi Christian family returned to Baghdad from Jordan six months ago to start a Bible study with women from a Catholic church that was targeted in the August bombings.
Most Iraqi Christians believe their concerns are overlooked in the global war against terror. A Baghdad native named Barbara, now approaching 70, asked during my interview, "Is there any country that will provide sanctuary to the Iraqi Christians?
"It seems like Christians in the West have forgotten the Christians in Iraq. It's necessary for them to help us. We don't want financial aid. We want them to save our lives." Last year, Iraqi leaders approved an interim constitution, including article 53D, which recognizes Chaldo-Assyrian Christians and guarantees creation of a region that Chaldo-Assyrians would govern themselves. In late November, 11 humanitarian groups appealed to the interim government to implement article 53D for creation of an autonomous safe haven north of Mosul in an area known as the Nineveh Plain.
A young seminarian named Shan, who now lives in Amman, said he hopes the elections will help deal a blow to the insurgency. "Perhaps the resistance will be weakened because the Iraqis have been empowered by voting in a new government." Six Christians will serve in the new National Assembly.
"For me," he said, "it doesn't matter whether a Christian or a Muslim is at Iraq's helm. What matters is whether the Christian voice there is being heard."
Dale Gavlak, a journalist based in Amman, Jordan, has covered the Middle East for 15 years.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Posted last week was an article about Christians in the broader Middle East: "The Risks of Regime Change | Middle Eastern Christians might end up more repressed under democracy than under dictators."
Other Christianity Today coverage on Iraq, along with a special section on the war, includes:
Voting Against Anarchy | The greatest threat to liberty in Iraq is not international terrorism. (A Christianity Today editorial, Feb. 18, 2005)
Losing Jesus' Language | The Assyrians, Iraq's main Christian population, struggle to keep their heritage and their ancient language. (Feb. 04, 2005)
Iraq's Christians Disenfranchised at Home and in U.S. | Assyrians are fighting for survival in a region that has long sought their ouster. (Jan. 31, 2005)
Fighting Flight | Christians call for commitment in wake of church bombings. (Sept. 03, 2004)
Iraq's Church Bombers vs. Muhammad | Attacks defy the Prophet's wish for the area's millennia-old Christian community, which is now on the edge of oblivion. (Aug. 06, 2004)
Emerging from the Shadows | House-church Christians start renting buildings, and dream of evangelism. (March 11, 2004)
Iraq's Good Samaritans | This past summer, pundits predicted that Iraqis would resent Franklin Graham's ministry. What really happened when the workers showed up? (Oct. 24, 2003)
Daring to Dream Again | Chaldean Christians connect with other believers. (July 14, 2003)
Damping the Fuse in Iraq | A veteran peacemaker discusses how religion can help stave off religious conflict after Saddam. (July 09, 2003)
The Mother of All Liberties | Full religious freedom for Iraq is not negotiable. (June 2, 2003)
No Strings Attached | Christians seek to balance relief work and evangelism in Iraq. (May 20, 2003)
Mercy in Baghdad | North Americans endure bombing to chronicle the war's effects on civilians. (May 7, 2003)
Before the Refugee Dam Breaks | Agencies prepare to help up to 900,000 people in Iraq War. (April 24, 2003)
Apocalypse Again and Again | The Bible doesn't tell us when to go to war but how to live in a war-ridden world. (April 16, 2003)
As Baghdad Falls, Agencies Brace for Flood of Work | Aid and mine removal teams could move into Iraq within days. (April 11, 2003)
Mixing Iraq Aid and the Gospel Stirs Debate | Critics say proselytizing can reflect negatively on other relief groups and governments. (April 04, 2003)
Evangelicals Plan to Minister to Iraqis' NeedsPhysical and Spiritual | Evangelism efforts will join relief work, say Southern Baptist Convention and Samaritan's Purse (March 27, 2003)
Relief Agencies Prepare to Help Iraqi Refugees | Meanwhile Christians in Baghdad fear the worst. (March 26, 2003)
Keeping Their Heads Down | Vital but dwindling Christians face many pressures. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Death by Sanctions | Iraqi Christians persevere in spite of Saddam Hussein and 10 years of an economic embargo. (Oct. 2, 2000)
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