Christians feel tide has turned on safety
BAGHDAD — Iraq’s minority Christians contemplated an uncertain and fearful future Monday, while condemnations poured in from Muslim and Christian leaders of the church bombings that killed 11 and injured dozens during Sunday services.
Leading the denunciations was the top Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who called on Iraqis to respect the rights of all religious communities.
“We condemn and reproach these hideous crimes and deem necessary the collaboration of everyone–the government and the people–in putting an end to aggression on Iraqis,” al-Sistani said in a statement from his office in thecity of Najaf.
“We assert the importance of respecting the rights of Christian civilians and other religious minorities and reaffirm their right to live in their home country Iraq in security and peace,” he added.
The Iraqi government blamed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist accused of leading Al Qaeda in Iraq, for the car bombs that targeted four Christian churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul in almost simultaneous explosions.
“We have basically . . . the blueprint that indicates that Zarqawi and his gangsters were responsible,” Iraq’s national security adviser, Mouwafak al-Rubaie, told the AFP news agency.
“His motive is to drive a wedge between the Muslim and Christian [communities] in Iraq.”
Indeed, Sunday’s explosions, timed to coincide with services, did far more than blast windows and shred flesh.
They also shattered any remaining illusions Iraq’s Christian community may have nurtured that it could avoid the tide of violence that has engulfed Iraq over the past year.
Christians have been victims of violence, as purveyors of alcohol, as businessmen targeted for ransom kidnappings and as translators working for coalition forces. However, they have not before been targeted as Christians, said Yonadam Kanna, secretary general of the Assyrian Democratic Party, one of the main Christian parties.
Yet with their community numbering about 750,000, or 3 percent of the population, Christians feel especially vulnerable. They have lived in Iraq since the dawn of Christianity, and some small communities still speak a form of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
The bombings present them with a bleak choice: to remain and risk further attacks or to leave and contribute to the further erosion of their tiny but ancient community.
Samer Akram, 20, knows what he is going to do. “I will get a passport and leave,” he said. “I will go to Syria and call my aunt who is in Australia and ask her to help me.
“I can’t stay here,” added Akram, a barber who was attending services in a church when two of the bombs detonated nearby. “Of course we are afraid. Of course they will attack us again.”
This is one of the biggest fears of Christian leaders: The bombings will spur a renewed wave of emigration, further depleting the already shrinking influence of their small community.
“That is the hope of our enemy, to evacuate the Christians from our country,” Kanna said. “But it’s a dream, because we won’t leave. And if we go, we will be back.”
But Christians are leaving, and although figures are not available, many know of Christian relatives or neighbors who have taken refuge in Syria or Jordan over the past year. In doing so, they have fled the uncertainties of living in the new Iraq and the fear of Islamic fundamentalism unleashed by the fall of dictator Saddam Hussein’s secular regime.
Leaflets have urged Christians to convert to Islam or warned them to leave.
Determined to stay
Fouad Izhak, 42, a shopkeeper in the mixed-faith neighborhood of Karrada, site of two explosions, said Christians have an obligation to remain and stand up to extremism.
“Iraq has belonged to all Iraqis since the dawn of civilization, from the days of Babylon until now, and if we leave Iraq it will weaken Iraq,” he said. “Those who love themselves more than others will leave, and those who love their country and want to serve it will stay.
“Jesus said you should love your enemy as yourself,” Izhak added. “So this is like a test from God.”
Many Iraqi Muslims are proud of their long history of secularism, and many shared in the sense of outrage.
“All Iraqi Muslims love Christians, so we are sure it wasn’t an Iraqi who did this,” said Mohammed Ali, an unemployed former government worker who says he counts many Christians among his friends.
Abdul Hadi al Daraji, a spokesman for rebel Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, condemned the wave of bombings, calling it “a vile and cowardly act.”
At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II sent a telegram of concern to the Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel-Karim Delly. In the letter, the pontiff said he was “deeply struck” by the news of the blast.
The majority of Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, a form of Catholicism.
Aug. 3, 2004
Liz Sly, Tribune foreign correspondent