Christians feel vulnerable in post-Saddam Iraq

BAGHDAD: When US soldiers asked a Catholic priest in Baghdad if they could attend mass at his church, he said yes, but asked them to sneak in a side door so Muslims in the area would not see them come in.

“I don’t want anyone to think we are associated with them,” said the priest, who asked not to be named. “We are afraid.”

The fall of Saddam Hussein has left Iraq’s tiny Christian minority — about three percent of the 24 million population — feeling scared and vulnerable. Their main concern, as for all Iraqis, is the resultant insecurity.

But Christians are also worried about a potential Islamisation of Iraq. And with frustration at the US occupation growing, they fear Muslims will associate them with the occupiers, who are seen as coming from a Christian nation.

“People say things like ‘Your uncle is an American’,” said Sanaa, a member of the same Chaldean church. “They think we are going to support the US They are wrong.” “Under Saddam we were not afraid of anything. Now we are afraid of everything. I’m afraid of whoever knocks on my door. Before we were living in peace.”

Father Basil Marogi, a Chaldean priest, said his congregation had halved because people were too scared to move freely. He warned things would get worse if the US forces pulled out and left various factions vying for power.

“Maybe tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, (Muslims) will impose Shariah,” he said at Baghdad’s Holiest Heart Chaldean church where he works. “People are getting their passports ready in case they have to leave. We hated Saddam, but in these circumstances with no security, of course we miss those days.”

Christians were free to worship under Saddam, who — despite his persecution of majority Shi’ites — officially preached religious tolerance.

What they essentially fear today is the unknown. Insecurity affects all Iraqis, and religious leaders say so far Christians have not suffered because of their beliefs.

“Saddam basically liked Christians, he didn’t bother them. Of course some people are afraid now, because no-one knows what will happen, there are no answers,” said Niran Sabry, a Chaldean Catholic housewife in Baghdad.

In the mainly Shi’ite city of Basra, some Christian girls say Muslims tried to make them wear scarves on their heads as Muslim women do. Christians in Baghdad said they felt ill-at-ease because of their minority status.

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