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.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
A woman lights a candle for the siege victims at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, Iraq, on Nov. 9.

In the flickering candlelight of Our Lady of Salvation Church, Nagam Riyadh sits against a pillar singing Ave Maria, her voice rising to the shrapnel-marked rafters.

“We are singing the hymns we couldn’t finish on Sunday,” says Ms. Riyadh, who was in the choir on Oct. 31 when gunmen stormed the church in an attack that has traumatized the Christian community here and raised questions about its future.

On the first Sunday mass after the attack, Nov. 7, she's one of hundred of survivors and mourners who have gathered here. They light candles in the shape of a cross on the marble floor next to the names of more than 50 dead. At the top are photographs of the two slain priests.

Riyadh, wearing a bandage around the bullet wound in her leg, pauses her singing to hand her passport to a church official. She’s among more than 50 of the wounded being flown to France and other countries for treatment. Like many hundreds of others who are leaving after the attack, it’s not clear whether she will ever come back.

“I was one of the ones who wanted to come back but now we’re all leaving,” says one member of the community who did not want his name used. “What’s happening to us is what happened to the Jews.”

One parish dwindles from 2,500 families to 300

Iraqi Jews, once an integral part of society here with a history dating back to Babylon, began fleeing in the 1940s. Now only stories of their once vibrant community remain.

Christians, most of them eastern rite Catholics, trace their history in this country to the earliest days of Christianity. Before the 2003 war, there were up to a million Christians here – about 3 percent of the population. Half that number is estimated to have left in the past seven years, continuing an exodus begun after the 1991 Gulf War when Saddam Hussein’s secular regime turned increasingly Islamic.

Although thousands of Assyrian Christians and others were killed under Iraq’s Ottoman rule a century ago, the attack on the church last week is the worst in the country’s recent history. The attack, claimed by an Al Qaeda-linked group, was followed two days later by 16 bombings in Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad that killed at least 70 people.

The vast majority of the tens of thousands of victims of Iraq’s violence since 2003 have been Muslim, but the small size of Iraq’s Christian minority and the nature of the attack have sent shock waves throughout the community.

“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?”

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.

“There is nothing left here – staying in this situation with all this threat is very difficult,” says Atheer Elias Medhat, a parishioner whose face was marked with the shrapnel. “There isn’t a strong government that can imprint its authority on the country.”

At other Sunday church services there were far fewer worshippers than usual. Congregants said many were staying in their homes. Some women were covering their hair in the street to avoid being identified as Christian – a practice not widely seen since the peak of sectarian violence in 2006-07.

'Very strong reaction to the massacre'

For years before the Oct. 31 attack, Christians have made up a disproportionate percentage of Iraqi refugees. In a bid to stem the flow two years ago, the Iraqi government appealed to European countries not to accept them simply on the basis of religion. Britain, Sweden, and other countries this year began returning failed asylum seekers of all religions back to Iraq, despite advice from United Nations refugee authorities that it still isn't safe.

Church officials worried about an irreversible exodus had encouraged Christians to remain in Iraq. That position has now become less clear-cut.

"We tell them they should remain here but we can’t make them, because they have a very, very strong reaction from the massacre that took place,” says Syrian Catholic Bishop Mati Shaba Matoka, one of a delegation of church leaders who met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last week.

Bishop Matoka says Mr. Maliki told them the attackers were able to get through checkpoints with weapons and a car filled with explosives because of "traitors" in the security forces. The explanation, similar to that following other deadly attacks, worries many in the church and outside as an indication that the government does not have control of security.

“We as men of religion have limits,” he says. “I want officials to take it upon themselves to provide a reasonable level of security so when we tell people it is their duty to stay and be patient, they accept it.”

Like many Christians, Matoka says the US handling of the war made the situation worse for the Christian community.

"When they came, they should have provided peace so people could live in peace and stability and not let it fall apart the way it did," says the bishop, whose church was bombed in 2004.

As he speaks, the lights go out in one of the city's regular power outages. "There is no electricity, there is no water, the streets are all broken, there's no opportunity for people to work – would the Americans accept this situation developing in their own country?"

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