Yalda Hajey, draped in traditional Assyrian scarves around his neck and waist, with red and green feathers protruding from his hat, dropped his vote into a ballot box, dipped his finger into a purple ink sponge and sprang into an Iraqi jig.
But Hajey's dancing mood turned somber as he talked about recent killings of fellow Christians in Iraq, including three bodyguards protecting a Christian ministry official and two men putting up posters in support of a Christian candidate. Media reports said their splattered blood covered the posters.
"I'm voting for those who martyred themselves," said Hajey, 53, of Chicago, who cast his ballot on Tuesday (Dec. 13).
Like Hajey, many of the tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians in the United States are deeply concerned about the future of their religious community in their native land. While the world's focus has largely been on Iraq's Muslim Shiites and Sunnis, Christians in Iraq are an important and suffering religious minority.
According to Iraqi legend, Christianity first came to the region by one of Christ's original apostles, with speculation centering on Thomas, who the Bible famously describes as an initial skeptic of the resurrection. Iraq has been called an ancient root of Christianity, but its Christians say they are as vulnerable as ever, making up an estimated 4 percent of the country's 26 million population.
"Christians are, in terms of history, the oldest inhabitants of Mesopotamia, known as modern Iraq," said Edward Odisho, a professor of culture and lingusitics, specializing in the Middle East, at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.
Odisho said that Christianity predates Islam in Iraq by centuries, and "in the absence of democracy, they (Christians) have used religion as an umbrella to bring them together."
Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Syrian Orthodox and Church of the East are among the Christian denominations represented in Iraq. But their numbers have decreased in recent years due to a terrorism-induced exodus to other countries.
This election has allowed Iraqis living in the United States and elsewhere to vote over three days for a new government for their homeland. Of the eight American cities hosting elections, Pleasanton, Calif., and Skokie are expected to receive the highest Christian turnout, possibly in the thousands, election officials said.
Iraqi-American Christians are voting, Odisho said, because they want to "emphasize their historical, ancient identity as the indigenous people of Iraq and as the speakers of one of the most historical languages in the world, Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke."
In Skokie, some Christian clergy members arrived in clerical attire to cast their ballots. In other parts of the country, Iraqi Christian leaders were also active.
"Christians are called by God and Jesus Christ himself to be one, and this is a call that we cannot be passive about," said Mar Bawai Soro, a Church of the East bishop in San Jose, Calif. "Now, with the privilege to vote, we can go ahead and vote for political ideas and political candidates who we feel will protect our cultural and religious rights."
Soro said he urged Iraqi Christians to cast ballots "because we're still very much tied to each other," referring to Iraqi Christians within and outside of Iraq. His concerns extend beyond church security to the everyday needs of Christians overseas.
"We're being marginalized by majorities," Soro said. "Our people and their priorities are bypassed." Those priorities, he said, include "buildings, schools, hospitals and housing projects" for predominantly Christian towns, most of them in northern Iraq. These institutions, he said, will help Christians strengthen their "relationship to their land."
That connection to the land and its Christian history is even evident among young Christian voters who have never seen Iraq. "If all of us out of Iraq come together and vote for them and support them, then things will happen over there," said Arbella Baba, 19, an American-born Iraqi Christian who lives and voted in Skokie. "I want them to be who they are without being persecuted. I think we should be able to live freely and openly without having to be afraid of what we are."
She is an eligible voter under Iraqi constitutional law because her father, an American, is Iraqi-born.
Voters cast ballots mindful of the past, but with an eye to the future. "I'm voting because we elderly have to lead the way for our children," said Phillip Lado, 73, speaking in his native Assyrian language. "We want to ask God to pour peace into our dear country of Iraq."
Many Iraqi expatriates want a Christian representative in their native land's national assembly so the security concerns of Christians can be heard. In the January elections, one of the five Christian representatives in the temporary assembly was elected almost entirely by out-of-country voters.
"We need to reach the minimum of (an estimated) 62,500 votes to achieve a parliamentary seat," Isho Lilou, an elections official, said. Election results will not be announced until ballots from around the world have been counted and submitted to Iraq. That process is expected to take several days.
Out-of-country votes will be counted toward 45 "compensatory seats" of the 275-seat assembly, which will remain in authority for a full four-year term.
For Iraqi Christians, the outcome could determine the stability of their community, and an opportunity for exiles to return. "We have become orphans in 54 different countries, scattered," Lado said. "We have to have representation to have our rights met like all people."
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
CT covered the Iraqi elections for an interim government from Skokie as well.
More coverage of Iraq includes:
Lost in the Sunni Triangle | Leaders of Baghdad church presumed dead. (Nov. 2, 2005)
Iraq's Worrisome Constitution | A future government will have to untangle the threads of a document that claims to be both Islamic and democratic. (Aug. 30, 2005)
Iraqis in U.S. Won't Vote on Constitution | Christian minorities fear Shari'ah law will force a continued exodus from Iraq. (Aug. 04, 2005)
Members of One Another | Iraq's endangered church looks to Western fellowship for help. (March 22, 2005)
Longing to Be Heard | It's dangerous and lonely to be an Iraqi Christianat home or in exile. ( March 21, 2005)
The Risks of Regime Change | Middle Eastern Christians might end up more repressed under democracy than under dictators. ( March 18, 2005)
Voting Against Anarchy | The greatest threat to liberty in Iraq is not international terrorism. (A Christianity Today editorial, Feb. 18, 2005)
The Mother of All Liberties | Full religious freedom for Iraq is not negotiable.A Christianity Today editorial (June 2, 2003)
Longing to Be Heard | It's dangerous and lonely to be an Iraqi Christianat home or in exile. (March 21, 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)