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A Final Appeal: Save Christian Iraq

Chiesa | May 28, 2007 
Sandro Magister

It is the only country where the liturgy is still celebrated in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But Christianity is in danger of dying out there. Killings, aggression, kidnappings. And now also the "jiza," the tax historically imposed by Muslims on their "infidel" subjects, those who have still not fled the country.

In Iraq's bloody war, which is being fought primarily by Muslim groups against other Muslims and “infidels,” the Iraqi Christians are the only ones who are not using weapons or bombs, not even to defend themselves. There aren't any armed Christian militias in Iraq. In fact, they are the most vulnerable and persecuted group. In 2000, they were more than a million and a half, 3 percent of the population. Today it is estimated that fewer than 500,000 remain.

In an official statement released on May 24, the Iraqi government promised protection for the Christian families threatened and chased out by terrorist Islamic groups. Some Muslim exponents have expressed solidarity. The government's action – which, however, is devoid of concrete initiatives – follows the dramatic appeal issued on May 6 by Emmanuel III Delly, patriarch of the Chaldeans, the most numerous Iraqi Catholic community, in the homily for the Mass celebrated in the church of Mar Qardagh, in Erbil, Kurdistan.

The Kurdish region, to the north of Baghdad, is the only place in Iraq where Christians today live in relative security. The Chaldean seminary of Baghdad, Babel College, was transferred to Erbil together with its library, and its buildings in the capital are now a stronghold for American troops in spite of the patriarchate's protests.

Christian refugees from the center and south of the country are streaming into the Kurdish cities of Erbil, Zahu, Dahuk, Sulaymaniya, Ahmadiya, and the Christian villages of the surrounding area.

But just a short distance to the north, in the region of Mosul and the plain of Nineveh, the danger becomes palpable once more. This is the historical cradle of Christianity in Iraq. There are churches and monasteries that go back to the earliest centuries. In some villages an Aramaic dialect called “Sureth” is still spoken, and Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is used in the liturgies. There are communities of various rites and doctrines: Chaldeans, Syro-Catholics, Syro-Orthodox, Assyrians from the East, Catholic and Orthodox Armenians, Greek-Melkites.

But the Christian villages are surrounded by hostile Muslim populations. And life is even more dangerous for Christians in the capital of the region, Mosul. Kidnappings are extremely common. The victims are released after their families have paid a sum of 10,000 to 20,000 dollars, or after they have agreed to hand over their homes and leave the city. But kidnapping can also end in bloodshed. In September of 2006, after Benedict XVI's address in Regensburg, a group called “Lions of Islam” kidnapped Father Paulos Iskandar, a Syro-Orthodox priest. The kidnappers demanded that thirty fliers apologizing for the offenses brought against Islam be posted on the churches of Mosul. Then they decapitated him. On the same day, in Baghdad, another priest was killed, Father Joseph Petros. A sister told the Vatican news agency Fides: “The imams preach in the mosques that it is not a crime to kill Christians. It is a hunting of men.”

Pascale Warda, an Assyrian Christian and the immigration minister for the Iraqi interim government, believes an autonomous province must be created in the plain of Nineveh, a sort of protected area not only for Christians, but also for other religious minorities like the Yazidi, the devotees of an extremely ancient pre-Zoroastrian religion. But the intensification of aggression on the part of Muslims living in that same region makes this hypothesis impracticable. Last April, 22 Yazidis were forced off a bus and killed on a street near Mosul. In 2005, a terrorist assault massacred the four Assyrians who were escorting the minister Warda.

In Mosul, Islamic groups have begun to demand from Christians the payment of a tax, the jiza, the tribute historically imposed by Muslims on their Christian, Jewish, and Sabian subjects who accepted to live in a regime of submission, as “dhimmi.”

But it is above all in Baghdad that the jiza is being imposed upon Christians in an increasingly generalized way. In the neighborhood of Dora, ten kilometers southwest of the capital, with a high concentration of Christians, groups tied to al-Qaeda have installed a self-proclaimed “Islamic state in Iraq” and are systematically collecting the tax, set at between 150 and 200 dollars a year, the equivalent of a month's expenses for a family of six. The exacting of the tribute is being extended to other neighborhoods in Baghdad, toward al-Baya'a and al-Thurat.

Some Christian families in Dora have been told that they can remain only if they give a daughter in marriage to a Muslim, in view of a gradual conversion of the entire family to Islam. A fatwa forbids the wearing of the cross around the neck. As for the churches, warnings accompanied by grenade blasts have forced the removal of crosses from bell towers and facades. In mid-May, the Assyrian church of Saint George was burned down. So far, seven priests have been kidnapped in the capital. The most recent victim, in the second half of May, was Father Nawzat Hanna, a Chaldean Catholic.

According to estimates from the Iraqi government, half of the Christians have left Baghdad, and three quarters have left Basra and the south. Those who do not stop in Kurdistan leave the country. It is calculated that in Syria there are up to 700,000 Christians who have left Iraq, an equal number in Jordan, 80,000 in Egypt, and 40,000 in Lebanon. Most of them are stuck where they are, without any assistance or recognized rights, waiting for an unlikely visa for Europe, Australia, the Americas.

In Iraq, Christians are traditionally present in the professions. Many are doctors and engineers. In the schools, they are – or were – 20 percent of the teachers. They are active in the sectors of computing, construction, lodging, specialized agriculture. They manage radio and television outlets. They work as translators and interpreters, a particularly vulnerable profession that already numbers three hundred victims.

The Iraqi constitution establishes for all religions an equality of rights that has no rival in the legislation of other Arab and Muslim countries. But the reality is the opposite. The magazine of geopolitics “Limes” wrote in an article in its latest issue, the third of 2007:

“The annihilation of the small yet great Iraqi Christian people, heirs of the hope of the prophets, would correspond to the end of the possibility that the new Iraq could become a free and democratic nation.”

And this would be a dramatic defeat for the Church as well.

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