Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Friday, April 25, 2003
There are some 700,000 Assyrian Christians in Iraq - about three percent of the 23 million Iraqi population. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the earliest churches were established there during the first century.
The area of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is referred to prominently in the Bible, and it appears to have been the location of the Garden of Eden; the Tower of Babel; Ur of the Chaldeans, where Abraham was born; Nineveh, the city to which Jonah was sent; and Babylon, the city to which Daniel and the Jewish nation was exiled.
During the war in Iraq, Christians suffered alongside their countrymen, said Paul Cook, advocacy manager of the British-based Barnabus Fund, a Christian charity working to support Christian minorities in the Islamic world.
The Barnabus Fund has been involved with churches in Iraq since 1999, regularly distributing food through more than 70 local churches to needy Iraqi Christians.
Bartulla, a Christian town near the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, was bombed by allied forces, which were aiming for the local Ba'ath party headquarters. The attack killed 20 Christians and wounding 75 others.
In Baghdad some churches were part of the collateral damage in the bombing there, particularly in the air strike on the Iraqi Air Command headquarters, in the center of a Christian area, where some churches and homes of Christians were damaged.
One Christian couple, who were caretakers of the Anglican St. George's church in Baghdad, disappeared along with their three children several weeks ago. Their fate is still unknown.
An estimated several hundred Christians fled over the border into Syria.
Nevertheless, Cook said, a feared backlash against the Christian community for the U.S.-led war in Iraq thankfully never materialized.
"There was concern that the population might turn on the local Christians," Cook said.
After the September 11 terror attacks on the U.S. and the U.S. war in Afghanistan there was an upsurge in persecution against the Christians because they are identified with the "Christian" West, he said.
Some Christians said they were afraid to wear a cross in public while others said they were told to get their food from the Americans, he added.
According to Cook, part of the reason the "big backlash" didn't occur was because many Western Christian leaders had come out against the war in Iraq.
But even though there was no mass persecution, the Christian community is apprehensive about its future.
"There is real concern for the future," Cook said. The Christians are waiting to see if a democratic, western-styled government will be installed or a Shiite Muslim state with strict Islamic, Sharia law.
"If that [Shiite state] happens their situation would deteriorate markedly," he said.
Approximately 65 percent of the population is Shiite Muslim, which is eager to throw off the Sunni minority rule of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Since allied troops defeated the ruling Baath party in southern Iraq, which is majority Shiite, there have been demonstrations calling for the establishment of a Shiite Muslim government.
One Shiite leader earlier even threatened to drive the Christians out of Iraq and into the sea, an informational document produced by the Barnabus Fund said.
The Christians would prefer a democratic government along Western lines where they would be free to follow their own religion in peace, Cook said. But they are rarely mentioned as being involved in discussions on a new government.
The Sunni and Shiite Muslims as well as the Kurds, which represent about 14 percent of the population, wield some influence. Even the Turkomens, which represent only one percent of the population, have a voice. But not much is heard about the Christians.
"It's important that the Christian voice is not drowned out," Cook said.
Oddly enough, Christians living under the secular regime of Saddam had a better life or at least lives comparable to Christians living under other Arab or Islamic dictatorships in the Middle East.
They had their trials. For instance, when Saddam massacred the Kurds in northern Iraq, he also killed Assyrian Christians, assuming they were part of a rebellion against him.
But over the last decade since the former Gulf War ended in 1991, Saddam attempted to gather support from the Arab world by trying to rally them around the cause of Islam.
Last year, Saddam enacted a ruling that all babies in Iraq had to be given an Arabic or Islamic name. His son Uday also published virulently anti-Christian material in his newspaper Babil, the Barnabus Fund said.
The turn toward Islam put more pressure on the Christian community, prompting a major exodus of Christians from the country. Some one-third to one-half of the community has emigrated over the last decade due to regime pressures, Cook said.
"Now it depends on how a new Iraq emerges [whether] the tide of emigration continues or slows down," he said. "Christians feel very insecure [about the future]."