Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Iraq's Christians Flee the Violence

Iraq’s Christian community flees violence
Thousands flee terror; ‘we cannot live in this country anymore’
By Ned Colt
Correspondent
NBC News
Updated: 12:45 p.m. ET Nov. 16, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Father Daniel Hani silently prayed in the front pew at
Saint Joseph’s Cathedral in downtown Baghdad. These are particularly
trying times for Christians in Iraq, and Hani knows that more than most.

He's aware of the empty pews behind him, pews that would have been filled
just two years ago. Attendance is visibly down, even though most churches
have reduced the number of weekly services.

"It's a matter of fear," he said, referring to the two-thirds drop in
attendance at St. Joseph's. "A lot of Christians are trying to get out of
the country."

Fear is forcing many Iraqis — of all backgrounds — to flee. Every morning
a heaving crowd pushes toward the front window of the Baghdad passport
office. It seems like anyone who can afford it is applying for a passport
and trying to leave. A half million passports have been issued since June.

Targets
Under Saddam Hussein too, Iraqis tried to leave, but after he was toppled
from power in April of last year, the tide of emigrants was supposed to
turn. It hasn't, and it's not surprising considering the bombings and
kidnappings that have become a horrifying part of daily life.

Iraq's Christians say they're high on the target list. While Christians
comprise only 3 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, the Christian
community is one of the oldest in the Middle East and has long played an
important role in Iraqi politics, society and the economy.

On Monday, Pope John Paul II met with Albert Edward Ismail Yelda,
Baghdad’s new envoy to the Vatican, and expressed deep concern for
religious freedom in post-Saddam Iraq, where Islamic militants have bombed
several churches, spreading fear among the minority community.

“May your government work untiringly to settle disputes and conflicts
through dialogue and negotiation, having recourse to military force only
as a last resort,” the pope implored in his written address accepting the
credentials of Yelda.

“It is my hope that the Iraqi people will continue to promote their long
tradition of tolerance, always recognizing the right to freedom of worship
and religious instruction.”

Targeted as purveyors of Western vice
Christian community leader William Warda rummaged through a pile of papers
on his desk. Since the end of Saddam's rule, Warda has been keeping
scrupulous records of the attacks. From the mass of papers he plucked out
a list containing names, locations and dates.

"More than 200 Christians have been kidnapped," he said, "and though my
census is still incomplete, at least 60 of them have been murdered."

He turned back to the pile on the desk and pulled out four glossy
8-by-10-inch color photographs. They showed the bloodied bodies of a young
boy and girl, sprawled on the kitchen floor of their home. They were a
sister and brother, said Warda, shot to death by radical Islamists because
the children’s father ran a liquor store.

Christians are targeted for a number of reasons. The fact that they
operate liquor stores and beauty salons, anathema to radical Islamists,
marks them as an obvious target. But more broadly because they are
perceived as being comparatively well off — solidly middle class — and as
such, easy targets for kidnapping rings.

They are also targeted because they are seen as being staunch supporters
of the American-led invasion last year, and even now many work with the
international coalition.

Scapegoats of religious extremists
Middle East analyst Jonathan Paris said Iraqi Christians are a vulnerable
minority, the scapegoats of religious extremists.

"Christians are deemed to be crusaders — part of the alliance with the
Americans and the British who are occupying Iraq — so the Christians are
uniquely targeted by the Islamists, by the radical extremists for being
associated somehow with the American occupation," Paris said.

It's not just individuals who are being targeted, but places of worship as
well. The first Sunday in August is a day seared into the minds of Iraqi
Christians as five churches were simultaneously bombed, leaving 11 dead
and more than 50 wounded. Since then, a half-dozen more churches have been
bombed.

Many priests are reluctant to speak publicly, fearful of attracting
unwanted attention and concerned about contributing to the Christian
exodus. Hani said the church is trying to support parishioners, whatever
their decision.

"Our country is part of our identity — it's how we identify ourselves. And
if Iraq loses its Christians, then Iraqi civilization loses a lot,” said
Hani.

Exodus continues
Iraq's Migration Minister Pascale Isho Warda has said at least 40,000
Christians have fled the country since the U.S. invasion. Most have gone
to neighboring Jordan and Syria, and from there they hope to get to
Europe, the United States and Canada.

Among those trying to get out is a dentist with a particularly painful
experience. He had a relative kidnapped, a friend killed and his nephew
beheaded — a murder that was posted on an Islamist Web site.

The dentist's wife urged him not to speak to the media, fearful of
retaliation and for the safety of his two young children. But he told us
he felt obligated to speak out, on the condition that he was not
identified, about what he described as the nightmare of life in his
country.

"I love Iraq, but what can I do? We cannot live in this country anymore.
We will leave it to the terrorist."

(Ned Colt is an NBC News correspondent. He was recently on assignment in
Iraq. Reuters contributed to this report.)