Iraqi Christian cry as they inspect the damage to St. Matthew's church in central Baghdad Nov. 9. Car bombs exploded within minutes of each other outside two Christian churches in southern Baghdad.
AFP and REUTERS PHOTOS
BAGHDAD — Christianity took hold in Iraq as far back as the first century. But in the 21st century, Christians are leaving the country by the thousands. And they're having a hard time finding refuge.
There has been systematic targeting of Christians and their churches by Muslim extremists in the aftermath of the country's invasion by the United States and its allies.
The most recent attacks started with the bombings of five churches in the early morning hours of the second day of Ramadan, Oct. 16. More violence followed, including attacks on Christian women and the bombing of a Chaldean Catholic church in Baghdad on Nov. 8.
“Some radical Muslims want ‘cleansing’ — they want all non-Muslims to leave Iraq,” explained Caroline Kerslake, executive editor of the Barnabas Fund, from her office in Wiltshire, England.
Barnabas Fund, a British organization that advocates for oppressed Christians worldwide, has been monitoring the situation and is in regular contact with Christians in Iraq, Kerslake said. She said the five October bombings were designed to send a message to all Christians in Iraq.
“They bombed five churches from five different denominations, including Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and the Ancient Church of the East,” she said.
As a result of the accelerating attacks, many Christians are fleeing, Kerslake said. “The figures on the numbers of Christian refugees range up to 40,000 — which is the figure quoted by an Iraqi government minister,” she added.
While Kerslake thought that figure might be too high, she said that one could say with confidence that “tens of thousands have fled.”
The message that they are not welcome is not lost on Christians in Iraq. “They want us to leave Iraq,” Odet Addul, a parishioner at one of the churches bombed in October, told Cox News Service.
Father Manuel Boji, a priest at the Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Cathedral near Detroit, Mich., said “we don't have an exact number” of those who have fled. Father Boji is in contact with people from Iraq; he had just spoken to the Chal-dean patriarch before speaking to the Register Nov. 12.
“The people who are leaving have financially good status and want to protect themselves,” said the priest, who hails from the small Iraqi town of Telkis, about 15 miles from the modern city of Mosul, the biblical Nineveh.
Some Christians refuse to be intimidated. “We will continue to have the Mass in the church and nothing will stop us,” Nabil Jamiel Suleiman, a parishioner at the recently bombed Catholic Church of St. George in Baghdad, told Cox News Service. “All Iraqis are threatened — when you go to work, when you go to school,” he said.
Cover Your Heads
While even the family of the prime minister has been threatened, the problem is that “Christians make easy targets, especially in the cities,” according to Father Boji.
Father Boji said there have been many threats, including “writings on walls saying ‘no more Christians in Iraq,’ and similar calls from some mosque loudspeakers.”
In Mosul, the bishops of three churches have been directly threatened, Kerslake said.
The reason for the targeting of Christians is their association with the West, she said. “There has been an escalation of violence because Christians are assumed to be Western sympathizers.”
For those seeking revenge for the invasion of Iraq, Christians have become the target of choice. “It's an easy way to retaliate for Iraqis who would like to attack American or British troops,” Kerslake said.
According to a Nov. 3 report by the Barnabas Fund, a letter from militants to Christian leaders in Mosul “threatened to kill one person in each Christian family as a punishment for the women not covering their heads.”
Barnabas reported that one Christian woman was killed Oct. 26 for having her head uncovered and two others had acid squirted in their faces for the same reason.
Not all Muslims are supportive of the attacks. The Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni group in Iraq, condemned them.
“Islam does not support the ongoing terrorism,” the group's spokesman, Sheik Abdul Sattar Abdul-Jabbar, told the Associated Press.
But the word on the street is not always so hopeful. “Leaflets are being distributed with the message, ‘Christians go; leave Iraq.’ Word is being passed around in the mosques, telling Muslims not to buy anything from the Christians. Not only are they infidels, but they will soon be leaving, so the Muslims will be able to take their homes and property for free,” the Barnabus report said.
Nowhere To Go
But Iraqi Christians are running out of places to flee. “They used to go to Jordan, but now Jordan is closed to them because (its government says) there are too many of the fleeing Christians there,” Kerslake said. “Now they go to Syria.”
Ironically, she said, it was easier for Christians to get refugee status in the West when Saddam Hussein was in power and their situation was less dire.
“(Western) countries don't understand the situation,” Kerslake said.
The U.S. and British embassies in Baghdad did not respond to the Register's requests for comment on the measures being taken to protect Iraqi Christians and the circumstances under which they might be offered refugee status.
“The coalition — and the government, too — are doing their best to have a better security environment,” Father Boji said. “The government has assured us that it will protect the churches and rebuild those that were bombed.”
But, Kerslake said, if the coalition and Iraqi government are unable to provide safety for the Christian community, “there won't be any Christians in Iraq.”
Andrew Walther writes from Los Angeles.