Iraqi Christians wary of Islamists

Christians worry they will lose religious freedoms if Islamic fundamentalists gain power post-Hussein.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Iraqi Christians, feeling vulnerable in the wave of lawlessness that has swept this city, celebrated Easter Sunday with a special sense of joy and gratitude that the war, and the looting that followed the fighting, are over.

But their happiness was tinged with foreboding for their future, with some voicing fears that Islamic fundamentalists could win power in the new Iraq and stifle their religious freedom.

"This Easter has a special taste," said Vaghinak Vahanian, a leader of the Armenian orthodox church. "People are coming out, breathing, laughing, and seeing each other. It's a good sign."

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But other Christians were less sanguine. "We are afraid that the fanatics could do something bad, especially among our Muslim brothers," says Bishop Ishlemon Wardouni, head of the Chaldean Catholic church. "We have a long history of persecutions here," dating back to Genghis Khan and earlier.

Keeping a low profile

The power vacuum that has left Iraq without any authority since Saddam Hussein's regime fell 10 days ago is unnerving local Christians, who make up about 3 percent of the population and tend to be better educated and more prosperous than their Muslim neighbors. The prospect of sectarian religious violence is especially frightening to them.

So they are keeping a low profile. The Chaldeans, members of a church founded by St. Thomas in the first century, celebrated their traditional midnight mass on Saturday afternoon, so as to be home by nightfall.

The Armenian Orthodox archbishop chose to hold his service not in the main Armenian church downtown, an area still infested with thieves, but in a quieter outlying district of Baghdad.

The soaring voices of the Armenian choir filled the ochre brick church Sunday morning as the congregation, dressed in Sunday best, overflowed onto the parched lawn outside. Worshippers who had not seen each other since the war began hugged and kissed one another, relieved to know they were safe.

The evening before, Chaldean Bishop Shlimon Wardouni had preached a sermon of caution. "I told people to be especially reasonable and wise, because this time is very difficult," he said after the Mass. "I asked them not to spread rumors, but to speak constructive words."

Muslims and Christians have lived peacefully side by side in Iraq for many years, Bishop Wardouni points out. "We must cooperate in love and unity for the good of our people," he says.

But he is alarmed. Shiite Muslims in his neighborhood, who he says are followers of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, have said they want to convert a building next to his church - formerly belonging to the ruling Baath Party - into a mosque.

"If this sort of thing happens, maybe later there could be problems," Wardouni worries. "We have heard their slogans, 'No Saddam, No Bush, Yes to an Islamic State.' "

Christians here say they enjoyed as many rights and freedoms as any other Iraqi under Saddam Hussein, who made one of their number, Tariq Aziz, an influential deputy prime minister.

"We enjoyed total religious freedom and there was no religious discrimination" against Christians, said Armenian Archbishop Avak Asadourian.

The current sense of uncertainty about their future that most Iraqis feel today, however, means that "anything could happen now," says Sarmed Hazem, a pharmacist who teaches Sunday school at the Chaldean church.

"We want to stay, we don't want to emigrate, we just want to be free and safe," he adds.

There are 650,000 Christians in Iraq, most Chaldeans but also Syrian, Latin, and Armenian Catholics, and members of a variety of Orthodox sects. Their numbers have fallen from more than a million during the past 20 years, as emigration has taken its toll.

"We are few, and they [Muslims] are more than us," says Raad Rassam, a commercial translator who wears a pearl crucifix on a gold necklace. "I don't know what to expect, but in these days we fear many people from the outside."

American marines and soldiers, to whom most Iraqis had looked for security, are present in only a few neighborhoods of Baghdad. In other parts of the city, armed Shiite Muslim militiamen have taken upon themselves the duty of preserving public order.

"We are very afraid that the Americans will withdraw from the cities and leave them in the hands of those people," says Kevorg Zeretzian, an Armenian tire merchant in Baghdad's souk. "That would be very dangerous."

Anxious for dialogue

Christian leaders say they are anxious to talk to their Muslim counterparts, to establish a dialogue that could help ensure their future. "In this time we have no contacts, but I will try to do something because we cannot stay like this," says Wardouni.

In the back of his mind, he explains, is the fate of Chaldean Christians in Turkey. There, a once-vibrant community has been reduced by governmental pressure over the past 80 years to 150 families led by a bishop who is forbidden to wear a cassock or crucifix in public.

But Wardouni says he has grounds for hope of peaceful coexistence between Iraq's various religious groups.

In the corner of his church courtyard, for example, a shrine to the Virgin Mary attracts a handful of Muslim supplicants every day, seeking divine intercession.

"I think Iraqi people are smart and studious enough" to avoid sectarian conflict, says Archbishop Asadourian. "There will be some difficult times, but I have belief in the Iraqi people and their ability to overcome them."

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