ISTANBUL — For Sarmad, translating e-mails from English to Arabic for fellow Iraqis is a welcome change from the incessant fear of murder he lived through in Iraq. In his hometown, Mosul, attacks on Christians have been an almost-daily reality throughout the past few years since the ousting of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“I was stopped at the university,” Sarmad recalled. People he describes as “terrorists” told the 18-year-old mechanical engineering student, “If you come here again, we will kill you.”
Full names in this article have been withheld upon request.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has targeted the country’s fast-disappearing Christian population, describing them as “legitimate targets” and causing unknown hundreds of thousands to flee in recent years. Out of an estimated 800,000 to 1.3 million Christians during the Hussein era, now less than half are thought to remain in the country.
Since an Oct. 31 attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Church, thousands more Iraqi Christians have run to Turkey. Exact figures are unknown, but Chaldean Church records show more than 600 arrivals in December 2010 alone, which exceeds the total arrivals for all of 2009.
The Oct. 31 attack began when Islamic militants with ties to al Qaeda took Sunday worshippers hostage. As police moved in, 58 people, including two priests, were killed.
According to accounts of the carnage, a young child was killed when one of the attackers blew himself up inside the church. More than 100 more were wounded.
The latest arrivals are seeking asylum in Turkey and applying for formal refugee status in the hope of transfer to third countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia. According to Father Gabriel, a Turkish Chaldean priest from the east of that country and now on sabbatical from his parish in Brussels to assist refugees in Istanbul, the resettlement process takes about two years.
Sarmad is part of the influx that fled to Turkey after the Baghdad bloodbath. He was joined at the Chaldean-Assyrian Solidarity Association (KADER) office by Sandra, a 21-year-old from Baghdad who, along with her seven-strong family, made the long bus journey to Istanbul “as soon as we could leave” after the Oct. 31 attacks.
“We were living with fear in our hearts for a long time,” she said. “My mother and I were threatened many times.”
Now Sandra is helping out at the KADER office, volunteering her time to distribute donated clothes to fellow Iraqis now sheltered by the Chaldean Catholic Church in Istanbul. The office is just around the corner from St. Anthony’s, the largest Catholic church in Istanbul, and these days, alive with Iraqis happy to worship without fear.
Father Gabriel said the work is a challenge, but adds, “It is surely also a beautiful thing for me to be able to help.”
He asked that people in the West pay greater attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians, saying, “People are destroyed, angry, helpless.”
He added that trauma and shock is a factor. “Some of the refugees here have seen people killed, people shot, blown up, even their own family — inside a church.”
‘Iraqi Blood Is Sacred’
There seems to be little happening on the ground to protect Iraq’s Christians, or to prevent the annihilation of a community that predates Islam in Iraq by six centuries and some European conversions to Christianity by a longer period.
Some Muslim leaders in Iraq have acknowledged this, and at “The Religions’ Dialogue” conference recently held in western Baghdad, Ahmed Abdul Ghafour al-Samarrai, head of the Sunni endowment in Iraq, said “Iraqis are one body. If the Christian part suffers, the rest of the Muslim body will respond to it. Iraqi blood is sacred; you cannot cross a red line.”
However, it remains to be seen whether the group that perpetrated the Oct. 31 attack will pay any heed to these words.
An estimated 2 million or more Iraqis of all religions and ethnic groups have fled since 2003, but some have started to return as violence drops from the 2004-2007 peak. Last year, a total of 118,890 Iraqi refugees and internally displaced persons returned to their country and homes, according to the United Nations.
However, the plight of Christians seems to be worse. The European Union debated the issue after the Oct. 31 attack and called for a halt to violence. However, in mid-January, Sweden deported 24 Iraqi asylum seekers, citing a more stable situation in Iraq. Some of the group were Christians. “European countries don’t open their doors,” said Father Gabriel.
Europe is not a preference for Sandra or Sarmad, however, and Australia and the U.S. are the favored resettlement options. “My uncle is in Sydney,” Sandra said. “I hope I can join him there.”
Sarmad wants to go to America, but first he must help his family escape. “They are living in a small town not far from Mosul,” he said, “but cannot afford to travel now.”
His status as asylum seeker means that he cannot work in Turkey while awaiting resettlement. Father Gabriel said KADER and other groups working with Iraqis desperate to leave need money. “Families often cannot afford to travel,” he said.
Nonetheless, the new influx continues, day by day. Sarmad cut in during an interview, saying that “today seven more of my friends are leaving from Mosul. They have had enough.”
“Today?” asked Father Gabriel. “Yes,” came the reply. “They will be here tomorrow.”
Simon Roughneen filed this story from Istanbul, Turkey.