Christians are feeling new pressures in Iraq and already there is a steady exodus of adherents of this minority faith out of the country, according to several reports.
In the first coordinated attack against Christians, Islamist insurgents murdered 12 and injured 60 in the bombings at five churches in early August. Even before the attack, there has been mounting pressure against the Christian community, which is estimated at about 800,000. The New York Times (Aug. 5) reports that attacks on Iraq’s tiny Christian minority have been steadily increasing since late spring. As a result, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Christians are now fleeing the country in record numbers.
Iraq is home to some of the world’s oldest religious communities, including Assyrians, an early, now independent Christian sect; Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize papal authority; and the Mandaeans, who follow John the Baptist. Ajmal Khybari, an official at the refugee agency’s Damascus office, said about 4,000 Iraqi families had registered as refugees in Syria.
Although they represent less than 5 percent of Iraq’s population, Iraqi Christians now make up about 20 percent of the total refugee flow into Syria from Iraq. Rita Zekert, the coordinator of the Caritas Migrant Center, a Catholic charity in Damascus said last year’s wartime influx of Iraqi refugees included Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Kurds in percentages roughly proportionate to their numbers in Iraq. “But nowadays, 95 percent of the people coming to us are Iraqi Christians,” Zekert says.
Though Iraqi Christians are heading to Jordan and Lebanon as well, Syria is the preferred destination, for its low cost of living, cultural similarities with Iraq and policy of freely issuing visas to citizens of other Arab countries. The new refugees tell of Christian shopkeepers killed by Islamist gangs for daring to sell alcohol, and of family businesses sold to ransom stolen children.
Some say that attacks on Christians had become common since Saddam Hussein’s government was toppled, in part because of the perception that Iraqi Christians are aiding the Americans. Despite the growing frequency of attacks, the leaders of Iraq’s Christians are urging their members to remain in Iraq or, if they have already left, to return.
World magazine (Aug. 14) reports that the new insurgency against Christians comes at a time when many churches are showing signs of new growth. “More importantly, they are acquiring a multiethnic face, as Assyrians and Chaldeans, Kurds and Turkomans, even former Bathists and an occasional Muslim convert — freed from the police state — can worship together.
Clergymen, too, have formed transethnic and transdenominational ties because for the first time in memory they can travel the country freely and meet together,” writes Mindy Belz.
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