Iraqi Christians put to the Sword
Worship in Iraq is now more dangerous than under Saddam's dictatorship as Islamists bomb churches in a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Adrian Blomfield reports.
Unless told what to look for, the casual visitor to the once glamorous Baghdad thoroughfare that hugs the east bank of the Tigris would almost certainly pass them by. The Stars of David carved into the stonework of the low-slung buildings that line the alleyways of Abu Nuwas Street are little more than a curiosity these days – a memento of a civilisation lost to the pages of history.
Judaism has a connection to Iraq that no other faith can match. The patriarch Abraham may well have been born there; the prophet Jonah reluctantly returned to foretell the destruction of Nineveh. Centuries later, the Bible tells us that the exiled Jewish people sat down by Babylon's rivers and wept for their homeland. Yet Jewish links to Iraq are far from ancient history.
In the 1920s, there were reckoned to have been 130,000 Jews in Baghdad, 40 per cent of the population. Today, after decades of persecution before and immediately after the creation of the state of Israel, there are no more than eight.
Iraqi Christians might not be able to boast such a heritage – though even if there is no way of proving their belief that the apostle Thomas brought the faith to Iraq in the first century AD, theirs is still one of the oldest Christian communities on earth. Yet after a series of attacks in the past month by Islamist extremists – whose creed is the parvenu of the monotheistic religions in the country – fears are mounting that Christianity in Iraq is doomed to follow Judaism into oblivion.
At the end of last month, in the most ferocious attack on the community yet, Islamist extremists linked to al-Qaeda burst into Baghdad's Our Lady of Salvation Church during evening mass and took the congregation hostage. The gunmen began executing clergymen and worshippers before tossing a grenade into a safe-room where 60 parishioners had huddled to hide. As Iraqi forces stormed the church, the assassins surrounded themselves with children and detonated explosives secreted in suicide vests.
By the time it was over, 52 Christians were dead. Blood smeared the walls of the church, body parts and scraps of seared flesh littered the pews. A policeman standing guard outside the church afterwards summed up the scene: "Blood, flesh and bones. You can't bear the smell."
A group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq, a self-acknowledged front for al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility and issued a chilling warning, telling Christians it would "open upon them the doors of destruction and rivers of blood". Delivering on their promise, 11 car bombs aimed at Christian shops and homes in Baghdad exploded on Wednesday, killing another five members of the minority.
The US and British invasion of Iraq rid the country of Saddam Hussein and instituted a bloodily delivered democracy of sorts after decades of oppressive totalitarianism. And yesterday, eight months of political deadlock since elections in March were broken with a deal to form a new government. Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia, remains as prime minister, while Iyad Allawi, leader of the main Sunni faction al-Iraqiya, will lead a new council for national strategy.
The agreement may be taken by outsiders as a welcome sign of stability that ought to reassure Iraqi Christians, but it is a painful truth that they led a safer and more dignified existence under Saddam's brutal rule. However, in a sign of the coalition's fragility, the Iraqiya bloc last night walked out in protest before a vote on the presidency.
Earlier this week, Athanasius Dawood, the exiled archbishop of the Syriac Orthodox Church, one of the smaller Christian communities, gave a warning that the minority was facing extinction at the hands of a campaign of "pre-meditated ethnic cleansing". He said that the only hope of salvation for Iraq's Christians was if countries such as Britain gave them blanket political asylum.
Although most of the extremists attacking them are thought to be Sunni Arab, Christians are as fearful of the Shia-dominated government and the kind of rule they believe it will one day institute. Tellingly, Archbishop Dawood laid much of the blame for the Christians' plight on Mr Maliki's administration, calling it "weak, biased, if not extremist".
Statistics vary wildly, but according to the US State Department, there are between 550,000 and 800,000 Christians left in Iraq, compared with 1.4 million in 1987 when a census was taken. Those numbers may be an over-estimation, but it is generally agreed that the number has halved since Saddam's fall as members of the faith flee the pogroms. Iraqi Christians say they are in graver danger now than at any time in their history. As gruesome as last month's attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church was, they have been living in terror since the first bombings of their places of worship in 2004.
In the northern city of Mosul, Christians have been routinely kidnapped and executed because of their faith. In the past two years, Islamist gunmen have frequently stopped young men and women on the street and asked for their identity cards. If they bore a Christian-sounding name, they were often shot dead where they stood.
To have any chance of survival, churches in Mosul have been forced to pay protection money to gangsters linked to al-Qaeda. Any doubts about the Islamists' ultimate intentions were laid to rest when a group calling itself the Secret Islamic Army delivered a letter to homes in the Christian enclaves of Dura, a district of Baghdad.
"To the Christian, we would like to inform you of the decision of the legal court of the Secret Islamic Army to notify you that this is your last and final threat," the letter read. "If you do not leave your home, your blood will be spilled. You and your family will be killed." With its chilling echoes of similar missives delivered to Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, it is little wonder that Iraqi Christians fear extermination.
Some have fought back. Churches in parts of Kurdistan have formed militias to protect their congregations. "The only solution left for our people is to bear arms," Father Ayman Danna of the Church of St George in Bartella was quoted as saying. "We either live or die."
But the Church Guard, as the militia is known, has the benefit of being funded by a rich Christian in the Kurdish regional government. Christians elsewhere can find no such powerful patronage.
Iraq's Christians learnt the hard way that to survive they had to pledge unquestioning fealty to successive, Sunni-dominated governments. When British troops pulled out of Iraq in 1933, members of the Assyrian Church, now one of the smallest of Iraq's 12 Christian communities, began to agitate for independence. The army and Kurdish irregulars retaliated by massacring 3,000 of them. Ever since, Christians have known that their loyalty had to be beyond reproach, and under Saddam, they were largely left in peace to practise their faith.
Saddam espoused Ba'athism, an ideology founded by a Syrian Christian that promoted secularism while acknowledging the importance of Islam in Arabic culture. Christians were only represented at secondary levels in the army and government, with the notable exception of Tariq Aziz – born Michael Yuhanna – Saddam's former deputy prime minister. Despite the repression of the Saddam years, Christians believed that was preferable to a government dominated by the Shia majority whose leaders had close links with Iran.
Those fears were given added impetus in 1991 when, at the encouragement of the United States in the aftermath of the Gulf war, the Shia rose up in revolt. One of their first acts was to attack and desecrate churches in Basra. Mr Maliki is a particular target of suspicion because he spent eight years in Iran during the 1990s. Tehran was also intimately involved in attempting to end the eight-month political impasse to create a coalition government.
With Shia rule set to continue, Iraqi Christians believe that not only will they receive no protection against Sunni extremists, but also that Iranian-style intolerance towards religious minorities will grow more entrenched. A number of Shia leaders with popular backing espouse a greater role for Islamic Sharia in daily life and many also support a return to Dhimmi status for Christians, an old Ottoman construct that limited the rights of minorities in return for protection. That would represent a regression from the Ba'athist constitution of 1970 which acknowledged the "legitimate rights of all minorities" and gave formal recognition to the five main Christian communities.
As persecution of Christians grows across the Middle East, and numbers dwindle ever faster, it is a supreme irony for many Iraqi Christians that one of the safest places for their faith in an ever more dangerous region is Ba'athist Syria. As a member of the minority Allawi strain of Shia Islam, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, has recognised the need to protect other vulnerable faiths. As a result, Christian holidays are observed by the whole country and work does not start until 10am on Sundays to allow Christians to go to church.
Christians across the border in Iraq can only look wistfully at Syria – for all its imperfections – as a reminder of how things once were.
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