Bleeding the weak
Without political power
or tribal muscle, Iraq's Christians have become ideal victims for
gangsters and extremists. Many are now fleeing the country, says Ghaith
Monday January 3, 2005
Yaqub Moussa sits in his liquor shop in Baghdad. One hand is hidden under
the counter holding a black pistol, the other taps nervously on the
surface. "People from the Hawza [the Shiite religious authority] come here
every month; they take $100 from me every time. If I don't pay they say
they will burn my shop because I am breaking the sharia Islamic law."
He looks at a teenage boy wearing a baseball hat and standing a few
feet away from him. "Once I told them, 'I don't have any money and can't
pay any more.' Next day my son was kidnapped and I had to pay them $500 to
release him. This time I am going to kill anyone who touches my son."
What started as a campaign by religious extremists to impose sharia law
in Baghdad and Iraq's other main cities, by attacking liquor shops,
hairdressing parlours and music stores, has turned into a very lucrative
mafia-style protection business.
Yaqub Moussa's shop is in Karrada, a prosperous neighbourhood of
Baghdad, where Christians, Jews and Shiite Muslims have lived for
centuries in an atmosphere of harmony. Fifty years ago the Jews were the
first to feel religious tolerance dry up; most left for the new state of
Israel in the 50s. Today, it is Christians who are feeling the pressure,
which is forcing many of them to consider leaving too.
A few streets away from Moussa's establishment, in front of another
liquor shop whose window frontage is completely covered by protective
metal sheeting, stands a man with a badly tailored brown suit, a white
shirt and a thin, neatly trimmed beard. Keeping his back to the shop, he
scans the street.
Inside, another man, also in a badly tailored brown suit, but with a
thicker beard and a big ring on his finger, stands in front of the counter
questioning the son of the owner. "Where is your father?" he asks, in the
tone of voice that used to be employed by Saddam's security police. "Call
him, we have to talk to him."
"He is out, can I take a message?"
The frightened son is taken outside for a further talking-to, before
the two men leave in a big white government SUV.
"They are from the security service of the Dawa party [one of the
strongest Shiite religious parties]," the young man explains. "They come
here every few weeks and we pay them. They are nice to us, they don't
threaten to use force, but we know if we don't pay this place will be
bombed the next day."
Christians in Iraq are divided into more than a dozen ethnicities and
sects. Of the ethnic groups that exist within the country's borders today,
the Chaldeans and the Syriacs are considered to be the oldest inhabitants.
Joined by Assyrians, Armenians and Arab Christians they make up around
1.5% of the population, centred in Baghdad and the northern regions around
Mosul, Dohuk and Kirkuk. Most of these groups are then divided between the
Orthodox eastern church and the Roman Catholic church, but even the
Presbyterian protestants have followers in Iraq.
Throughout Iraq's modern history, there has been little or no direct
religious oppression of Christians, according to Father Bashar Wardeh, a
priest in the Catholic Chaldean church in Baghdad and a teacher at the
Babel Liturgical college. He argues that, unlike the Shiites and the
Kurds, who opposed the ethnic-sectarian policies of the Ba'athist regime
militarily and politically, the Christians never had political ambitions
and so were tolerated by the regime.
Things started to change after the American led war of March 2003 that
toppled the Ba'athist regime of Saddam Hussein. As chaos replaced
dictatorship and oppression in Iraqi society, currents of religious
fundamentalism - whether in the form of extreme Sunni Wahhabi militancy
aimed at annihilating the "infidel", or attempts by Shiite clergy to
impose a sharia ethical code - have been proving stronger than secularism.
In this anarchic atmosphere, tribe, sect and ethnicity have become the
natural shelters for people who feel that the state is unable to provide
security for its citizens. As the Christians have no strong political or
tribal weight, they have come to be perceived as the weakest element in
"The Christian man will know who attacked him," says Father Wardeh, "but
because there is no law to protect him and no tribe to go and take revenge
for him, he will thank God for the loss and keep going."
In the office of one Christian political party - which agreed to an
interview on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from Islamist
extremists - more than a dozen young Christian men have been brought from
their villages in the north to protect a party official. He sits in a
dilapidated room in a former Ba'ath party office. "With the disappearance
of the state, the tribal and ethnic elements became the major forces,
which leads to government in which every post is awarded on a sectarian
basis," he says. "The Christian citizen knows that the only way to
participate in the process of rebuilding the country is to be adopted by
this political party or that."
Many Christians find themselves obliged to affiliate with Islamic
religious parties or tribes to get a degree of protection. After having a
car crash, for instance, Sami Mansour, 57, a Christian taxi driver, sought
the help of a local Shiite tribal council to solve the dispute. "When the
other driver realised I was a Christian, he demanded not only that I
should pay for the car repair but also that I should pay the tribal fine,"
he says. "I then went to a tribal council which agreed to talk on my
behalf as one of their 'sons' and the other driver withdrew his claims."
Christians have seen their numbers falling dramatically in the past two
years. In fact, they have been leaving Iraq in numbers since the
mid-1990s. With the heavy impact of United Nations sanctions against the
Ba'ath regime in power at that time, thousands of Iraqis began to flee.
The Christians felt this pressure doubly: partly from the sanctions and
partly from the resulting "Islamisation" of society. But a new wave of
emigration has taken place in recent months, especially after a bombing
campaign that began in August, targeting churches in Baghdad and Mosul.
In his house in a poor neighbourhood in eastern Baghdad, empty apart
from couple of sofas and a plastic picnic table and chairs, Moris Illyas
sits with his family to have their last Sunday meal in Iraq.
"There is no security here, a Muslim child can insult a Christian man
and no one of us can say anything," Illyas says. He points to his
12-year-old daughter: "I stopped her from going to school. I used to take
her to the school, wait outside for hours and then take her back. I can't
stand that pressure any more."
Fear of verbal and physical intimidation caused his wife, Jaclin
Shamir, to begin wearing hijab, covering her hair whenever she leaves the
house to give her the look of a Muslim woman. "I have had to change my
whole life. I now wear a scarf most of the time." Holding a golden
crucifix in her hands, she says, "I hide this under my clothes now. It's
like living in Rome in the early days of Christianity."
According to many priests, the numbers of churchgoers has fallen by
more than half, and Sunday evening mass has had to be shifted to the
afternoon because of security fears. Midnight Christmas masses were
cancelled this year.
But Father Wardeh, whose church in eastern Baghdad is among those
bombed, has refused to barricade the building with concrete blast walls or
sandbags. "This is a house of God, and God shall protect it," he said as
he watched the church's only guard patrolling the yard, an old man with a
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