Iraqi Christians find safety in Syria

Religious violence prompted many to flee homeland

Damascus, Syria — Seated in his parish office, Father Sarmad Yousef reflected on his hard choices: to disobey his archbishop by remaining in Syria or to return to Iraq, where his name has appeared on a death list.

“After the Americans came, I was one of the people telling the Iraqi Christians not to leave,” he said. “After the violence started, I stopped telling them that.”

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Christians all over Iraq face a similar dilemma as relentless violence engulfs the country, some directly targeting them.

Staying in the midst of the threats is dangerous, yet leaving means abandoning communities, church property and a heritage with centuries-old roots.

Before the U.S.-led war, roughly 750,000 Christians lived in Iraq, out of a population of 25 million. Most were Chaldean and Assyrian, but there also were Armenian, Jacobite and Greek Orthodox Christians and a small number of Protestants. Most of them lived either in Baghdad or in northern Iraq around Mosul.

Since then, 15,000 to 20,000 Christians have fled to Syria, according to Christian groups, out of “about 700,000” Iraqis, most of them in flight from the war, according to the U.N. high commissioner for refugees.

Yousef, a 30-year-old Chaldean Catholic who came here in August 2004, was the parish priest of Baghdad’s St. Pathion Church, with 800 families under his stewardship. Today, he occupies a simple office in Damascus, decorated with small portraits of St. Therese, the patron saint of his new church, cradling a bouquet of pink roses.

He says he actively supported the United States when coalition troops first entered Baghdad in April 2003 and helped organize community meetings on their behalf. Such support came with grave risks, and he narrowly missed two drive-by shooting attacks.

But when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal came to light, Yousef says, his view changed. Nor was he alone.

“Before that, Iraqis loved Americans,” said Yousef, his eyes lowered. “Directly after that — those photos, that scandal directly destroyed the dignity of Iraqis.”

Muneeb, an Iraqi Christian parishioner of St. Therese who didn’t reveal his last name because he said he did not want to attract local attention, said general resentment toward the Americans was transferred to Iraqi Christians. “Americans are Christians,” he said, “so we’re automatically considered to be part of them.”

Christian-owned liquor stores and beauty salons were attacked. While kidnapping has soared — both for terrorism and financial gain — Christians felt particularly targeted since they are often associated with successful businesses and financial support of families living abroad.

With the rise of Islamic militancy, Muneeb said, his sister, a doctor, was ordered to wear a veil outside her home — a requirement that didn’t exist, he said, when Saddam Hussein was in power.

“I never thought of leaving Iraq,” Muneeb said. “But as a minority, we have no support.”

Emmanuale Khoshaba, a member of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, who regularly commutes back and forth to Iraq, is more optimistic. Through his job as the movement’s Syrian representative, he promoted Iraq’s Jan. 30 elections among absentee voters in Syria.

“Don’t see the glass half-empty,” said Khoshaba, who is the organization’s Syrian representative. “Now, we have rights: We have our names, we have members of the National Assembly, and we have 35 schools that teach Syriac.” Under Hussein, teaching Syriac — the language used by Assyrians and other Iraqi Christians, and one of the Middle East’s oldest languages — was strictly forbidden.

“We have coexisted for thousands of years,” Khoshaba said. “The problem was the repressive regime, and today we are in a transitionary stage. But one has to stay and sacrifice something for it.”

There have been many examples of such sacrifice.

One Sunday last August, a spate of bombings that struck five churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul left 11 dead and scores wounded. Yousef’s church was spared, but he said Iraqi Christians increasingly had started to leave soon after.

When Yousef took a previously planned trip to Damascus, he learned his was one of 18 names on a death list. Thirteen of those people had been killed the previous month. “I decided not to go back — I felt that I was too young to die,” said Yousef.

He left behind friends, family and his parish. The archbishop of Baghdad instructed him return to his post, but he stayed in Damascus to fill an opening at St. Therese.

Yousef’s new church, wedged within Damascus’ Old City of cobblestone streets and crumbling houses, overflows with worshipers during Sunday Mass. Of the 2,000 families now connected to St. Therese, 90 percent are recent Iraqi refugees.

Just outside the church doors, a group of parishioners from Yousef’s old Baghdad parish discussed how their lives have changed.

“Life was better — we didn’t have any problems,” said Jamila Tama, referring to the relative peace between religious sects under Hussein. “There’s killing, bombing and kidnapping. We have nothing now — even our house is sold.”

Her son, Bassam Bahnam, was grateful for the haven in Syria. “But I have three boys who worked in Baghdad, and they’re all unemployed now,” he said.

Bahnam and his family want to return to Iraq — when the violence ebbs. “Of course there’s no place like home,” said his younger brother, Hisham Bahnam. But he criticized Christian leaders’ calls to stay in Iraq.

“They’re asking us to stay, but they’re not giving us any solution,” he said. “Even Christian leaders need an army to protect them whenever they go outside.”

George Abona, a former priest who attended a seminary with Yousef, agrees. “When my Christian leaders say, ‘Don’t leave your heritage,’ what are they going offer me?” he said. “What will heritage do for me and my son?”

In Iraq, Abona worked for the United Nations for seven years, before and during the war, and was in its Baghdad compound when it was bombed in August 2003. He survived, but the blast killed his brother, along with the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, and 20 other U.N staffers.

Then last October, he was kidnapped for 19 days. He was released after another brother paid a $20,000 ransom.

Despite all that, he said, “The security issue is not a big issue — it’s that I’m not ready to raise my son in an extremist Islamic society.”

Syria has relaxed immigration rules for its Arab neighbors. But aside from Palestinians, refugees are not allowed to hold jobs in Syria, forcing most Iraqi newcomers to live off their savings. Government assistance — especially health care — is limited, and the refugees must return home periodically to get their temporary visas renewed.

Yousef tries to provide his new community in Syria with food and money for medical needs. The main reason he and other Christians have fled Iraq, he said, is “because we don’t feel it is our country any more.”

“I have bad memories now,” he said of events since the invasion. “Most of my friends were killed there, and we only saw cruelty and blood. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back.”


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The San Francisco Chronicle, USA
July 19, 2005
Joshu E.S. Phillips, Chronicle Foreign Service
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday July 19, 2005.
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