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Theme: Christians under the New Tyranny in Iraq

March 19, 2007

AsiaNews: Murders, abductions and threats are everyday occurrences in the life of Mosul Christians

The calvary of Mosul’s Christian community is never ending. Neither Christmas, nor the New Year has brought any respite to Iraq’s desperate Christians. Instead 2007 has brought new murders and an escalation of threats.

From this Sunni stronghold, AsiaNews has received accounts of the list of abductions, intimidation and murders that have occurred in the past two weeks. The last two incidents are just a few days old.

Last Tuesday a young woman employed as a secretary in a Mosul clinic was murdered for no apparent reason as she made her way back to her home in the small Christian town of Bartella.

The next day a man from St Paul’s Parish in Mosul was murdered as he tried to resist his would-be kidnappers on the threshold of his home.

Local sources, who preferred to remain anonymous, said that in the last 15 days tens of Christian families, who hunkered down resisting the temptation to emigrate, have received threatening phone calls demanding money for the Sunni resistance; otherwise they would forfeit their lives.

In addition, Christians are faced with physical threats and abductions for ransom, forcing the community as a whole to raise large sums of money. The result is that many Christians have reached their economic breaking point without any certainty that they will see their loved ones again.

Churches have also become targets. Local parish priests have survived the Christmas season under constant threat.

Making matters worse, they have had to put up with dangerous roads, power outages, fuel shortage and the cold, the great equaliser. “The situation is such that no government can help us,” they said.

Before the war began in 2003, there were anywhere between 80 to 90,000 Christians in Mosul. But now no one knows. Hard data are hard to come by but diocesan sources report that at least one Christian is leaving the city for good every day.

But Mosul’s situation is not unique. Insecurity and kidnappings reign in Baghdad as well. This has forced the Chaldean Patriarchate to move Babel College and St Peter Major Seminary to Kurdistan.

Scripps News: Christians at risk in Iraq

Sunday evenings in this quiet Christian town in the north of Iraq have a serene feel about them. As the light fades, parishioners gather on the steps of St. Elias’s church, congratulating the priest on that day’s sermon. Their children play in the adjacent park beneath a giant artificial tree with the number “2007” on it.

If it weren’t for the two men with Kalashnikov rifles standing guard over it all, it could be a scene outside a church anywhere in the world.

Iraq’s Christians, however, are a community under siege. Few of those who attend mass at St. Elias’s are residents of Ainkawa, which is part of the country’s Kurdish autonomous region. Most are internal refugees from the south and center of the country, where Christians are caught in the middle of a raging civil war between Sunni and Shia Muslims. “The Sunnis and the Shiites have a dispute with each other, and we’re trapped in the middle of it,” said Souad Lahad, a 45-year-old mother of four who fled with her family to Ainkawa from the war-ravaged city of Mosul two months ago. They left their longtime home 30 minutes after discovering a letter taped to their door that accused Christians of being spies for the United States, and demanded an unspecified amount of money “or we will cut your head from your spine and demolish your house.”

The letter, which Lahad took with her when she left Mosul, is signed by the “secret assassinations office” of the Khalid Bin Walid Movement, a previously unheard-of group. The family left immediately.

“We thought if we waited even another hour, they would enter our house,” said Lahad, whose family now shares a crowded two-story home with other relatives.

Her story is sadly common in Ainkawa. The Sunday evening Arabic-language mass at St. Elias, which is so popular that some worshippers are forced to listen from outside the overflowing church, was recently instituted especially for new arrivals from other parts of Iraq. The other six Sunday masses at the two main churches in town, which are conducted in ancient Aramaic, were filled to the bursting point.

“Christians are being terrorized in the south. They have no peace and no safety with the death squads and car bombs. At least they find peace here in Kurdistan,” said Father Tariq Choucha, who estimated that his parish at St. George’s church in Ainkawa has swelled 50 percent with the arrival of 1,500 families from the south and center of Iraq in the four years since the U.S. invasion.

To the dismay of many in Ainkawa, their plight has largely been ignored in the West. When U.S. soldiers arrived in Baghdad, many Christians assumed their lives would get better than they had been under Saddam Hussein. Instead, Father Tariq said he was “embarrassed” that as a priest he could not provide enough food, shelter and blankets to help all the newly arrived who are in need. He pleaded for Christian communities in Canada and elsewhere to do more for the Christians of Iraq.

“If this situation is only temporary, we’ll be okay,” said Father Rayan Atto, a priest at the nearby St. Joseph’s church. “We need more help. We’ve got people who are very poor, people who have no place, people who have no electricity.”

He said it was imperative that something be done to keep the Christian population from being entirely driven from Iraq. While 800,000 Christians once lived in the country, representing about 3 percent of the total pre-war population, Christians are believed to make up about 20 percent of all those who have fled the country since 2003.

Most of the refugees who arrive here come from Baghdad and Mosul, where Sunni and Shia militant groups have made it clear one of the world’s oldest Christian populations _ most of whom are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but recognize the Pope’s authority, and Assyrians _ was no longer welcome in Iraq.

In 2004, four churches in the capital and another in Mosul were bombed on a single day, leaving 11 people dead. Discrimination against Christians spiked dramatically, as militant groups attacked liquor stores and warned Christian women to wear Islamic dress.

Ms. Lahad started wearing a headscarf and long skirts. Her 23-year-old son, Rami, said he stopped wearing Western clothing and changed his hairstyle. Barbers refused to shave his face, he said. “If (the militants) saw someone who was not dressed like them, it meant you were a non-Muslim and working for the Americans,” Mr. Lahad said.

Father Tariq said that while Christians hardly prospered under Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime – they suffered through two decades of sanctions and war with the rest of Iraq – those days seem halcyon now. “Before, there were just the Baathists to worry about. Now there is (radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-) Sadr, (Ayatollah Ali) Sistani, al Qaeda. So many groups,” Father Tariq said. He said he was worried that the Christian community, which has existed in Iraq almost since the religion began, might soon be driven out of the country altogether.

“We have been in this country longer than the Muslims,” he said. “But we are overwhelmed now.”

AP: In Jordan, Christians from Iraq harassed

Iraqi sisters Nasrin and Rihab enjoyed a relatively peaceful life in Baghdad until the night almost a year ago when militiamen tortured and beheaded their only brother.

Then came threatening phone calls, said the sisters, both members of Iraq’s small Christian community. And not long afterward, armed men broke into their home and beat them.

They “started hitting us, pulling our hair and pounding on my sister’s stomach with their boots,” wailed Nasrin, now 51, in an interview in their tiny apartment in Amman.

Rihab’s gallbladder burst, and blood came out of her mouth, the sisters recalled. She was rushed to a hospital and when she recovered, with a large scar still across her middle, the two fled to Jordan.

“We escaped after that. They vowed to kill us,” said Rihab, 56, who like her sister would not allow her family name to be used for fear of more attacks.

Their story is a chilling reminder of troubles faced by minority Christians in Iraq amid sectarian fighting between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. Churches have been bombed, and businesses — particularly hair salons and liquor shops _destroyed.

As a result, many Christians have joined the flood of Iraqis fleeing their country. There are an estimated 750,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan, including about 2,000 Christians. An additional 1 million Iraqis have fled to
Syria.

Jordan has been especially worried about the influence of Shiite refugees, who are seen as a menace to the country’s security and predominantly Sunni character. But Christians — most are Chaldean Catholics — have also faced a tough time here.

Rihab and Nasrin, who have put several locks and deadbolts on the door of their two-room apartment, say they are haunted by memories of Baghdad.

Militants kidnapped their brother, Muhanna, tied him up in a deserted house and tortured him, then killed him.

“He tried to call us from his phone, but the line went dead,” Rihab said. “They took his cell phone and made threatening calls to us. .. We realized that something terrible had happened.”

Police later discovered his body.

“Now we have no one at all to care for us and protect us,” wept Rihab, clutching pictures of the bloody body.

The sisters, neither married, can barely afford their $200 monthly rent here. They have no family left in Iraq. A niece lives in Australia; the sisters were recently denied permission to settle there.

“I help an old woman. … I’m tired. … but we trust in God,” said Nasrin.

Rihab believes Christians no longer have a future in Iraq, and thinks militants targeted her family because of their faith.

“‘We will kill you, like we killed your brother,'” she said the militants threatened, over the phone, after the brother’s death. “They shouted obscenities at us, telling us, ‘You are Christians.'”

Afterward, the family home was attacked and they fled.

Leila Salman, a Christian whose two daughters were killed by Shiite militiamen last year, is also now living in Jordan and is grim about the future.

Her daughters, Linda and Rita, both in their 20s, were killed when men fired on a minibus taking workers home from a U.S. military facility in Baghdad. The two had washed clothes and worked at a dispensary for the U.S. military.

“We’re being persecuted because the allied forces are Christian, and they think we are collaborators,” their mother said.

AsiaNews: Islamic groups impose tax on Christian “subjects”

“Non Muslim subjects must pay a contribution to the jihad if they wish to be allowed to live and practise their faith in Iraq”. These orders are being imposed on the Christians of Mosul and Baghdad by Islamic militias. Besides these threats of extortion, thousands of non Muslims are also being forced to leave their homes by letters assigning their house to Muslim citizens. The initiative is part of the general campaign to Islamafy the entire country, which begun with the imposition of the veil on all women. The website Ankawa.com was the first to carry news of this latest development; the website has eye witness accounts of Iraqi refugees in Erbil, in the semi autonomous region of Kurdistan.

The fourth anniversary of the US military’s arrival in Baghdad, March 20th 2003, brings with it little improvement in the conditions of the ever decreasing Christian community. Bomb attacks, kidnappings and threats continue to mark the daily existence of those few who so far have not been able to leave. The latest sign of the increasingly worrying situation is news that the community is now being forced to pay the jizya, a “poll tax” requested from non Muslims according to the Koran, guaranteeing “protection” form the Islamic umma. The tax was once extracted by the Ottoman Empire until its collapse in 1918, but now Baghdad and Mosul’s Mosques have ordered it be put in place again, “without revealing it to authorities”.

According to local Christians it really is a contribution to the holy war, which – the jihad maintains – will also protect their community from external aggression. The monies collected are then given over to Mosques, but “without the knowledge of authorities”.

Other accounts tell of letters being left in gardens or the entrance to Christian homes, notifying the families that they must leave their dwellings because they have been assigned to others, whose names and surnames are listed in black and white in the letters.

AINA: Iraqi Assyrian Refugees Flocking to Sweden

One afternoon in September last year Saed’s eleven year old son disappeared. A few ours later the phone rang. They called themselves Muhammed’s army and they demanded 400,000 dollars for releasing the boy. This was money that Saed did not have and did not have any chance to find. But the kidnappers did not give up. Either the money or Sargon’s decapitated head in a bag.

Saed panicked. He had too little money saved. He knew this day would come, but the money he had saved was not nearly enough. After two days he had sold all gold that the family could bring up and he borrowed the rest so he had 30,000 dollars. The kidnappers accepted it and released Sargon.

The same night they released his son, Saed began to plan the family’s flight to Södertälje. They were a relatively rich family and lived in a big house. They sold the house and the land around it for the ridiculous sum of 90,000 dollar. This was money that actually was enough to smuggle them from Baghdad to Amman and from Amman to Södertälje. And unlike most other non-Muslim families they did not get stuck in Jordan or Syria.

Today the family, two adults and two children, lives in a two-room apartment in a part of the city called Hovsjö. They do not care if they are living in a small space. They are even waiting for more relatives to come and live with them.

-I would rather live in a basement in a city were my children do not get kidnapped than living in a big house in Baghdad, Saed says when he shows us the apartment.

Metro meets Saed at the association Multicultural Family Centre in Södertälje. Samira Hardo Gharib, chairmen for the association, has worked with Iraqi refugees for twelve years. She has recently visited Syria and there she met many Christian Iraqis that are on their way to Södertälje.

The football teams Assyriska and Syrianska, both national federations, the church parishes, and the fact that Suroyo-Tv is broadcasted from Södertälje has made the city known for Christians in the entire Middle East.

There is a lot of nagging about living confined, and it is true that people live confined. But it is a much better alternative than being kidnapped, raped and murdered.

The Iraqis at the association all agree. Then they break their way in to the discussion. Everyone wants to tell about the brutalities against non-Muslims. Saeds friend Ninor talks about the “butchers”, Islamic extremists, that can be rented by different groups to behead kidnapped persons.

The front door is opened, two children enter and it gets quiet. It is Sargon and a friend. The parents do not want anyone to talk about the violence in Iraq in front of him, not remind him of the days he was kidnapped. We are invited for coffee and discuss the future on non-Muslims in Iraq. The Iraqis are convinced that presence of Assyrians (Syriacs and Chaldeans) and other non-Muslim minorities will soon be nothing but history. Saed, Sargon and Ninor are just assumed names in this article, in order not to reveal the persons’ identities.

“The situation is cumbersome”

CHAOS. In Södertälje the amount of Iraqis has increased from 750 to 5300 in five years, says labour market coordinator Aydin Özkaya.

Only last year 1052 refugees came to Södertälje. According to the prognosis by the Swedish Migration Authority, the municipality will receive at least 2,000 more Iraqi refugees this year.

To get the situation under control has, the municipality has employed over 20 people to work at the so called Introduction Unit.

-It is not enough to employ more handling officers. The situation is cumbersome. It will be chaos, and honestly we cannot answer what we are going to do. More municipalities, particularly in Stockholm County, must take their responsibility. The USA — the whole country — has decided to take 7,000 Iraqi refugees, when we in Södertälje at the same time on our own have almost reached that amount, says Özkaya.

The reason to the situation is that in Sweden you can choose where you want to live when you are applying for asylum. Most of the Christian Iraqis that come to Sweden want to settle in Södertälje, mainly because of the city’s already large Christian population from the Middle East. Every fifth inhabitant of Södertälje is of Assyrian (Syriac or Chaldean) origin.

-Sometimes they do not even know that Södertälje is in Sweden, but they want to come here, says Catarina Helling, Chief of the municipality’s Introduction Unit.

She says that the reason for the problems is that the politics applied assume that asylum appliers know the Swedish society. But that is not correct. They come to Södertälje where they do not have to know Swedish to get around.

The association Multicultural Family Centre had this week a meeting with the Swedish Migration authority in Solna, to start a Swedish for immigrants language course. Today every asylum seeker has to go to Solna, thirty miles away, to be educated in Swedish. Many therefore chooses not to attend the courses.

“The minorities might disappear”

ESCAPE. Non-Muslim Iraqis flee in thousands from Iraq and human rights activists warn that the country is soon cleansed from it’s minority groups.

Muslim leaders make, in their war against USA, the Christians in Iraq look like the enemy. Because USA and Great Britain are Christian countries, fundamentalists accuse Christians for the war.

– Most of them who can escape from Mosul and Baghdad do it, says an Assyrian journalist from Mosul.

The organisation Minority Rights Group International calls it “The Christian Exodus”. Rape, forced conversion, kidnappings, bomb attacks against churches and beheadings are a part of the everyday life of the Christians.

An organisation that for a long time has fought to help the Christians in Iraq is the Society for Threatened People. Metro has met their Middle East expert Janet Abraham in Munich, southern Germany. She says that too little is being done and that it might be to late.

Christian Assyrians and other ethnic and religious minorities live under terrible circumstances in Iraq right now. The situation is also critical in the neighbouring countries where hundreds of thousands have fled. This is the biggest population movement in modern times. A complete disaster for all of Iraq but mainly for the minorities, which might disappear completely, says Janet Abraham.

See also:
Daniel Pipes: Christians Disappearing From Iraq (2004)
Barnabas Fund: Protect the Christians of Iraq
Christians of Iraq: The West Turns a Blind Eye to the Ethnic Cleansing of Christians in Iraq

Related Posts:
Report: Iraqi Christians lose all hope with violence, anarchy
Report: Christians flee Iraq, find Syria ruthless

Updates:
AsiaNews: Bishops appeal: Save Iraq’s Christians!
Washington Times: Iraqi Christians forced to leave

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