In Iraq, Christians fear they could be wiped out – like Jews before them
The Oct. 31 attack on a Baghdad church – the worst in recent memory – has spurred a fresh exodus among Iraq's Christian community, already decimated by the war.
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“They kill us not because we are Iraqi but because we are Christian,” says Father Douglas al-Bazi, who has permanent injuries after being kidnapped and tortured four years ago. “It is different if I die by a bomb or in an accident – I will not say that I’m dying because of Christianity but they entered the church and they know inside the church there are only Christians. Our leaders say, 'We ask the Christians to be patient – to have the courage to live together to live hand in hand with the Muslims ... Why are we begging? Saying, 'Please, please,' for what? To let us survive?”Skip to next paragraph
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Father Douglas says his Chaldean Catholic parish in the working class neighborhood of New Baghdad has dwindled from 2,500 families in the 1990s to less than 300. His Muslim neighbors help protect the church, but almost every day, he says, more Christians decide to leave.
"Of course I cannot ask anyone to stay," he says. "Everyone tells me ‘Father, I am sorry – I will leave.' I tell them, 'Don’t be sorry, OK? No one is pushing you to die, what’s the benefit of dying?' ”
Iraqi church leaders in Europe urge exile
The siege of the Our Lady of Salvation Church sent shock waves through communities in Europe, which have grown used to news of frequent attacks on mosques in Iraq.
The Islamic State of Iraq, which took responsibility for the attack, has pledged more violence against Christians. A team of gunmen dressed in military uniforms stormed the church and opened fire on worshippers, calling them infidels, before detonating suicide vests after an standoff with Iraqi special forces.
In London on Sunday, a senior Iraqi church leader called on Christians here to leave the country.
“Which is better for us, to stay and be killed or to emigrate to another place and live in peace?” Archbishop Anthanasios Dawood told the BBC after delivering the same message at his Syrian Orthodox church. He asked European governments to grant asylum to Christians in Iraq.
'Does our country love us?'
Church officials in Iraq are more circumspect. But in the light of the security breach that allowed the attack, they are far from reassuring about the ability or willingness of Iraqi security forces to protect them.
“Today we the Christians demand that our country answer us – does our country love us or not?” asked Monsignor Pius Kasho in the courtyard of the damaged church the day after the attack. “We humble ourselves and work for our country – does our country love us? Who will answer this question? This land is silent but we demand that the entire situation, the officials and the government answer us.”
With neighboring countries overflowing with Iraqi refugees, Christians say the attack has sparked another exodus to the Kurdish territories in northern Iraq. In the overcrowded Christian enclave of Ankawa, on the outskirts of Arbil, property prices rose by thousands of dollars the day after the siege.