Iraq's Christians consider fleeing as attacks on them rise

It was 10:30 in the morning, almost four months ago, and the children were getting ready for church. Aziz Raad Azzo, 5 years old, was drinking his milk; his 14-year-old sister Raneen was putting on her new clothes. When they heard a car pull up, Raneen, thinking her father was home, ran to the window and flung open the shutters. Four men shot her and her little brother in the head.

The children's crime: Their father, a Christian storekeeper, had sold alcohol.

Before the murders, the family received a photocopied death threat. "We are warning you, the enemies of God and Islam, from selling alcohol again, and unless you stop we will kill you and send you to hell where a worse fate awaits you," reads the warning, signed by "Harakat Ansar al-Islam," the Partisans of Islam Movement.

Shortly after the murders, their father wrote a letter to an Iraqi human rights group. "Please save me," he begged, "and help me leave the country."

Facing a rising tide of persecution, Iraq's tiny Christian minority has a terrible choice: stay and risk their lives, or leave and abandon those left behind. Afraid of an Islamic future in which they would be outcasts, thousands are trying to flee. "It's like a huge amount of people lined up at the starting line, waiting for the gun to go off, and now it's going off," says the Rev. Ken Joseph, an Iraqi-American Christian activist in Baghdad. "For them to leave is a very big step, but that shows how badly people want to get out."

It is difficult to gauge the exodus, because most Christian groups, desperately wanting Christians to stay, deny that there is any problem. (Iraq's new minister of displacement and migration, Pascale Isho Warda, was in Europe and unavailable for comment.) But Issaq Issaq, director of international relations for the Assyrian Democratic Movement, estimates that about 2,000 families have tried to leave since summer began. "They want to leave, because they heard they can get asylum in Australia," he says. "We are trying to keep these people in Iraq, because it is their country."

In 1987, the Iraqi census showed about 1.4 million Christians. Then came Saddam Hussein's anfal ("spoils of war') campaign. In the late 1980s, the army rampaged through the country's north, attacking ethnic Kurds and systematically destroying more than 100 small Christian villages, razing scores of ancient monasteries and churches and deporting thousands of Christian families to Baghdad.

During the 1990s, a steady stream of Christians poured out of Iraq to Canada, Switzerland, Australia, and the United States - wherever they could get asylum. Today, fewer than 1 million remain in Iraq, divided among Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Armenians, and Syriac Christians.

In this dwindling community, talk of persecution is taboo. Those who admit to it are accused of helping the terrorists. "Newspapers publish this kind of thing in order to make propaganda, and scare the Christians into leaving the country," says the priest at the Sacred Heart Catholic church in central Baghdad. He begged not to have his name published. But he swears there is no Muslim-Christian hostility.

"We are brothers," says the priest, sweating inside the stifling rectory. "There is always this sympathy, and this tie of brotherhood between the Christians and the Muslims. Baghdad is considered a center of Christianity."

Outside the church, under the punishing 120-degree sun, the priest's bodyguard laughs. "Don't believe what our father said," he says, pointing out a fresh bullet hole next to the rectory door and reciting a litany of recent death threats. "He can go anywhere he likes, he can leave the country if he wants to. But he is not thinking about us, the poor Christians. That's why he doesn't want me to talk to you frankly and openly about this.... There is an immigration bureau in Syria, and most of the Christians are going there."

Ten minutes away, in the Bab Sharji market, Ahmed al-Maamouri scorns Christian claims of brotherhood.

"I am unhappy about them, because Iraq is our country," says the young Muslim merchant. "They are like a white termite: They are eating the country from the inside. But if they hear a loud voice, they will keep quiet. The Christians are cowards - they are not going to fight."

Attacks have increased. Saturday, Islamic militants in Mosul and Baquba blew up four liquor stores. Sunday, fanatics attacked a liquor store in downtown Baghdad, shouting "God is great" as they machine-gunned bottles of beer and wine and kidnapped an employee.

Not all Christians are killed by Islamic militants. Issaq has compiled a list of 102 Christians killed since April 9, 2003. Some were killed for selling alcohol; others for working with Americans as translators or laundresses. (About 10 percent were killed by coalition troops, casualties of postwar violence.) Many were kidnapped and killed for money, a fate that befalls Muslims, too.

But sometimes it's hard to separate kidnappings from religious murders. Among Iraqis, there's a widespread belief that Christians are wealthy. This stereotype, too, can kill. On June 2, gangs kidnapped a young Christian storekeeper named Saher Faraj Mirkhai. Thinking he was rich, the gang demanded a ransom of $100,000. After selling their furniture, his 16-year-old truck, and the stock of his downtown Baghdad store, his family scraped together all the money they could find: about $13,500.

After they paid, the family got a phone call from Saher's cellphone. "We asked for $100,000, and you paid this miserable amount of money," said the voice, cursing them with foul language. The next day, police found Saher's body, pierced by over 30 bullets and severely mutilated.

Because of their religion, and the fact that many Christians speak English or have relatives abroad, there's also a widespread perception that Christians are pro-American.

"There is a common ground between them and the Americans, so it was very easy for them to work with the Americans," says Khaled Abed, a Muslim street peddler who believes that "about 40 percent" of Christians work for occupation forces. "So you could say that the Christians used the current situation for their own benefit."

Like many others, Mr. Maamouri, the Muslim merchant, sees Christians as sympathetic to the American occupiers. "When the Americans invaded Iraq, they thought God had delivered them," he says. "They think that this is their day."

The peace between Christians and Muslims in Iraq, ever fragile, has always cracked in the crucible of national crisis. In 1931, as the British Empire handed over Iraq to a "sovereign" government of its choosing, the country's Assyrian Christian minority begged for a protected enclave or permission to migrate en masse. The British rejected both, offering them a deal instead: Assyrian soldiers could guard Britain's air bases inside Iraq.

This illusory British "protection" proved fatal. In July 1933, a band of armed Assyrians tried to flee into neighboring Syria, and a border skirmish erupted. Iraqi authorities portrayed it as a full-blown insurrection by an Assyrian fifth column trying to bring back their imperialist protectors. That summer, Iraqi troops and armed Kurdish tribesmen led a massacre against Assyrians, culminating in the slaughter of hundreds of helpless Assyrian villagers on August 11. On their return to Baghdad, a cheering populace showered the troops with rose water and pelted them with flowers for their victory in crushing the Assyrian "revolt."

Today, Assyrians are again asking for a protected province in the north, as well as money to fund a hotline and three safe houses for victims of anti-Christian crimes. "If we can get a zone in the north of Iraq, the rest of Iraq is going to go to hell, but we can be safe," says Mr. Joseph. "Otherwise, Chicago and San Diego and Detroit had better get ready for another flood of Assyrian refugees."

About a month ago, a rumor tore through Baghdad's Christian community, half a million strong, that Australia had agreed to give Christians political asylum. Frantic asylum-seekers flooded passport offices and churches trying to get copies of their baptismal certificates.

Salwan, who asked that his last name not be published, was one of them. On June 19, he took a $10 taxi from Baghdad to Damascus. The next morning, he went to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office on Maliki Street. On the sidewalk, hundreds of Iraqis waited in line. Most had slept there overnight, hoping to get in and register as refugees.

Salwan, a moonfaced young businessman, had already camped out overnight on the pavement twice. Each time, the office closed before he reached the head of the line. This time, he talked his way to the head of the line and got his prize: an official UNHCR document noting that he is an Armenian Catholic and giving him six months to apply for refugee status.

Now back in Baghdad, he says he loves Iraq, but he is hoping the UN will call him and tell him he can go to Australia: "Because of the situation, and because all my family is there, and because I cannot bear the life here anymore."

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