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Iraqi Christians flee to Jordan, Syria in response to increased persecution

By Dale Gavlak

Oct 7, 2004

AMMAN, Jordan (BP)--A quiet but steady hemorrhaging of Iraq's ancient Christian presence is underway and little is being done to stem the flow, Compass Direct news service reported Oct. 6.

Written threats, kidnappings, bombings and murder by Muslim extremists are driving thousands of Iraq's minority Christian population out of their ancestral homeland, fleeing for safety to neighboring Jordan and Syria.

"The Christians are experiencing an absence of leadership," Hala Hikmat, a recent arrival from Baghdad who has joined thousands of her countrymen in Syria, told Compass Direct. "We have no leaders who are communicating our urgent needs to the authorities, so consequently each person has to take care of themselves." Hikmat said their urgent needs are for protection and for someone to take a stand on Christians' behalf.

A string of church bombings in August and September caused 30,000-40,000 Christians to flee the country, Compass Direct said, according to estimates by Iraqi government and church officials. Hundreds more families who are part of Iraq's 750,000 Christians are leaving each week.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has said the figures are too high, and UNHCR offices in Amman and Damascus acknowledge it is hard to know exactly how many Iraqi Christians are currently in Jordan and Syria, Compass Direct reported.

Of the 4,000 Iraqi families officially registered as refugees with the agency in Damascus, more than half are Christians. It is believed that there are larger numbers of Iraqis in Syria because it is cheaper to live there than in Jordan. Iraqi Christians also said they have stronger cultural and spiritual ties to Syria. Syrian authorities estimate there are about 300,000 Iraqis in the country.

"The Syrian government has been extremely generous to the Iraqis," said Abdelhamed El Ouali, the UNHCR head in Damascus, according to Compass Direct. "It has kept the borders open without political considerations. And it believes it has a sacred duty to allow Iraqis who need safety to stay as long as necessary. But I am afraid if the numbers continue to rise dramatically without any international assistance, the situation here could change."

A member of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic community refused to give her name to Compass Direct for fear of reprisals against family members, but she said she lived near one of the churches that was bombed in Baghdad last August.

"I received a letter threatening me. It also claimed that the church where I served would explode while I was inside," she said, "unless I paid $300,000.

"We are poor people and do not have such money, so I took my husband and my son and we fled to Syria," she told Compass Direct.

The synchronized bombings of five churches on August 1 and a car bombing at a Baghdad church on September 10 sent shock waves through the Christian community. Iraqi officials blamed al-Qaeda ally and Jordanian terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for the attacks.

A university student visiting Syria from Baghdad said she wanted to attend mass at the Chaldean Church of St. Terese of Little Jesus while she was in Damascus because there was little opportunity to worship back home without fear, according to Compass Direct.

"We can't attend services because all of the churches are threatened with explosions," she said. "No one knows what will happen now."

Most of Iraq's Christians are Chaldean eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but who recognize the pope's authority. Other Christian denominations in Iraq include Roman and Syrian Catholics, Assyrians, Greek, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox, Presbyterians, Anglicans and evangelicals.

One Baptist woman from Baghdad who also refused to give her name said she had taken to wearing a head covering when going outside, simply to protect herself and her children, Compass Direct reported.

"It is very risky now to go out on the streets in Iraq without a scarf on your head," she said. "When I dared to do it, people shouted at me from a passing car that I had to respect Islamic traditions in a country where Muslims are the majority."

But the woman said that was not the main reason why her family fled Iraq. Her husband is a university professor. She told Compass Direct that because he is a Christian and an educated professional, he was a double target for militants.

"They have been killing university professors. They want to rid Iraq of intellectuals," she said. "We have received threats and letters saying they have not incurred enough casualties. We were frightened and decided to leave."

Although Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has condemned the assaults on churches as "hideous crimes," Muslim leaders have largely refused to criticize the killings of Christians who work for the U.S. military or sell liquor, according to Compass Direct. Beauty salons and shops selling music cassettes run by Christians have also been targeted because they are deemed offensive to strict Islamic practices.

Christian businessman Sawa Eissa told Compass Direct it was more than threats that forced him and his family out of Baghdad and over the border to Jordan. He said militants linked to renegade Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr recently kidnapped and tortured him until his family paid ransom money.

"A gang came to my shop with machine guns and forced me into a car where I remained for nine days," he said. "They wanted $200,000 from me.

"They repeatedly hit me and poured boiling water all over my body. I was held hostage until my family paid them $50,000 to finally get me released."

Eissa, who is in his mid 50s, now walks with a cane and burn marks are visible on his body. He said he and his family hope to find permanent refuge in Australia because he cannot find legal work in Jordan.

An Iraqi church leader, Noel Farman, said other Iraqis have also become victims of the escalating violence and militant clashes with U.S. and Iraqi forces, according to Compass Direct. But because Christians are much fewer in number, he argued, attacks against them have a disproportionate impact.

"Christians in Iraq are becoming more and more of a minority, and they are being sacrificed for the sake of the war against terrorism taking place on the battlefield of Iraq," he said. "We feel depressed, because we are considered like a 'playing card' that outside forces can manipulate for their own aims.

"We Iraqis of various religious and ethnic backgrounds are used to living together and enjoying good relationships, but now these relations are being exploited," Farman said, shaking his head.

The number of Christians in Iraq is expected to drop as long as hostilities continue in the country, in line with their already steady decline over the past 15 years, Compass Direct reported. Before the 2003 war, Christians represented one million out of Iraq's 25 million inhabitants, while a 1987 census recorded their number as 1.4 million.

A Syrian Orthodox bishop, preferring not to be named, said he feared Iraq's Christian population could totally disappear within a decade if emigration continues at its current rate. But Farman was more hopeful. He said the Iraqi church was resilient and would move underground if the circumstances worsened.

Yet even in these troubled times, there are stalwart Christians who are choosing not to leave their homeland, according to Compass Direct. A small group of Pentecostal Christians who visited Amman recently from Baghdad reported that their church is growing, despite some outward pressure. In another instance, a family returned to the Iraqi capital in order to start a Bible study with women from one of the Catholic churches targeted in the August blasts.

Without a strong Christian presence in Iraq or candidates in the upcoming elections who insist on a separation between religion and the state, the country could move precariously toward becoming a theocracy dominated by Islamic parties and clerics, according to Compass Direct. Iraqi Christians said they do not want to leave their country, but without the needed recognition and support of their rights, staying there is becoming a more difficult proposition.


Ashur TV -----December 2005 Schedule


Who are the Christians of Iraq?  

December = Canoon Gadmaya

Iraqi Christians flee to Jordan, Syria in response to increased persecution Dec. 16, 05

The Mid-East's beleaguered Christians Dec. 16, 05

Exiled Iraqi Christians Vote With Concern About Their Future Dec. 15, 05

Tension Mounting on Day of Iraqi Elections Dec. 15, 05

Iraqi Americans Cast Their Votes Dec. 14, 05

Information about Voting in Canada Dec. 14, 05

A vote for democracy 12, 14, 05

Iraqi expatriates to vote in elections, hopeful new government can end bloodshed Dec. 13, 05

Iraqi Americans Ponder Role in Homeland's Vote Dec. 12, 05

Iraqi-Americans ready for polls Dec 12, 2005  

The Latest information about Iraq's Out-of-Country Voting Dec. 12, 05

Between Iraq and a hard place, Iraqi Christians in Syria Dec. 12, 05

Half a Million Iraqi Assyrians (including Chaldeans and Syriacs) have taken refuge in Syria Dec. 11, 05

Assyrian Claims Discussed in Australian Parliament Dec. 11, 05

Iraqis here get voice in Baghdad's future Dec. 11, 05

Official Information about Iraq's out of the country voting Dec. 10, 05

Iraq's Voting in Canada Dec. 10, 05

Iraqi community to cast votes at fairgrounds in Pleasanton Dec. 9, 05

Fostering creativity in dangerous times Dec. 8, 05

Meet Miss World Canada 2005, Ramona Amiri Dec. 8. 05


Iraq Establishes 8 Polling Centers in the U.S. 12, 8, 05

News From Iraq Dec. 8, 05

740 Stained with the blood of our Martyrs Dec. 6, 05

Kurdistan Democratic Party Stops Assyrian Group From Campaigning Dec. 6, 05

Campaign activity, insurgent violence rise in Iraq  Dec. 5, 05

Myths About the Situation in Iraq Dec. 5, 05

Competition for the best design of the Ancient Assyrian Costumes Dec. 3, 05

List of "Reported" Assyrians murdered in Iraq in 2005. Dec. 3, 05

Dylan's quest: Six-year-old needs blood matches Dec. 3, 05

Shades of voter apathy Dec, 2, 05

Holywood Tapestries Featuring Semiramis is on Auction  Dec. 2, 05

Iraq's Oily Referendum Dec. 1, 05

Iraqi Parliamentary Elections In California Dec. 1, 05

November = Tishrin II 

Burial pictures of the Two Assyrians Killed Nov. 30, 05

Two Assyrian Party Members Killed in Iraq, Two Wounded Nov. 29, 05

Iraq Election Coverage at Ashur T.V. Nov. 29, 05

Iraq's Elections Could Be 'Magnet' for Success, Adviser Says Nov. 29, 05

Assyrian Political posters for the upcoming elections Nov. 29, 05

Islamic reformers struggle to revise school textbooks Nov. 28, 05

Iraq's political-campaign season in full swing as violence continues Nov. 27, 05

The Crusades Remembered, a Different Perspective Nov. 26, 05

Iraqi Factions Seek Timetable for U.S. Pullout Nov. 25, 05

Dora:Baghdad's Neighborhood Becomes Trouble Spot Nov. 25, 05

Iraq: Election Official On Expat Voting Set Up Nov. 24, 05 

Prediction of a Better Future for Iraq Nov. 24, 05

Iraqi Kurdish leadership is more consumed with self-enrichment Nov. 23, 05

Early voting in Iraq's parliamentary election to begin December 12th  Nov. 22, 05

The Assyrian Church of the East Maintains Its Continuity Nov. 22, 05

Not all Middle Easterners are Muslim, Arab Nov. 21, 05

The Middle East Needs Lebanese Christians Nov. 21, 05

Academic Conference on Seyfo [genocide] Held in Sweden Nov. 20, 05

Anovel by Abdulsalam Nov. 20, 05 

Harbole": A documentary film Nov. 20, 05

Letter To the Hellenic Parliament  Nov. 20, 05

My Grandmother Heranus  Nov. 19, 05

Books About the Assyrians Nov. 17, 05  

A Moslem discovers the praise of Christian and Jewish scriptures in the Koran  Nov. 17, 05

Iran is behind the Badr Brigade who are accused of jailing and torturing the Sunnies Nov. 17, 05 

Democracy, the Kurdish Style.  Nov. 17, 05

Talabani Promises Pope Equality and Respect for All Religions Nov.16, 05

Assyrian Wedding Comes to Australian TV Nov. 15, 05

In Jordan, Chaldean Catholics help Iraqis Nov. 15. 05

Are you a Christian in the Middle East?  Nov. 14, 05

The Assyrian General Conference Election Platform for Iraq Nov. 12, 05

Old hotel may become home for Hurricane Katrina victims Nov. 12, 05

Iraqi leader affirms Christians' rights Nov. 11, 11, 05

Egypt's Christian-Muslim divide 11, 11, 05

Assyrian Family Attacked in Tikrit Nov. 11, 05

Ancinet Assyrian Style Citadel in Los Angeles Nov. 11, 05

Priests say Iraqi Christians now victims of extortion Nov. 08, 05

Iraq; International Religious Freedom Report 2005 Nov. 08, 05

Chaldean Synod to focus on Iraq and Liturgy Nov. 08, 05

Assyrian Killed in Kirkuk's Car Bombing Nov. 05, 05

Funeral of Grace Mgr. J. Y. Cicek Nov. 05, 05 

Witnesses Describe Ballot Fraud in Nineveh Nov. 04, 05

Chaldean synod should tackle Christian migration and evangelicals' proselytism,  11. 04, 05 

Unexpected Death of His Eminence Mor Julius Yeshu Çiçek Shocks Assyrians & the Syrian Orthodox Church Nov. 03, 05  

Three Christian schoolgirls beheaded in Indonesia Nov. 03, 05

On the trail of stolen Iraqi art Nov. 03, 05

Lost in the Sunni Triangle Leaders of Baghdad church presumed dead.  Nov. 03, 05

Who is Killing the Iraqi's and the Americans?   Nov. 02, 05

What Next in Iraq?  Nov. 02, 05

An American's View of Iraq's Assyrians  Nov. 01, 05

October = Tishrin I

New Coalitions Emerge for Parliamentary Elections in Iraq10, 31, 05

Should the U.S. Withdraw? Let the Iraqi People Decide 10, 31, 05

Those Who Voted Against Constitution Are Terrorists: Iraqi President 10, 30, 05

An Assyrian Engineer Killed by the Kurds in Kirkuk 10, 30, 05

Kurds Reclaiming Prized Territory In Northern Iraq 10, 30, 05

Dwyer: Most Iraqis want a constitution - and want U.S. troops to leave 10, 30, 05

The oldest lense 10, 28, 05

Westminster Hall debate on Iraqi Kurdistan  i.e. northern Iraq 10, 25, 05

Iraq constitution approved  10, 25, 05 

Assyrian and Babylonian medicine was surprisingly advanced 10, 24, 05 

What's in a Name? 10, 12, 05 

Draft constitution denies equal rights, say Iraq's Christians  10, 22, 05

Rejection of Iraqi Referendum Possible as Nineveh Vote Fraud Reviewed 10, 21, 05 

Rosie Malek-Yonan's Schedule of The Crimson Field Book Tour 10, 20, 05

TURKEY DECRIES the Assyro-Chaldean MONUMENT IN FRANCE 10, 20, 05

Vote Figures for Crucial Ninveh Province Don't Add Up 10, 19, 05

Iraq Constitution: Bad news for Christians  10, 19. 05

Assyrian students unite 10, 19, 05

Iraq bishops ready to seek help from Pope  10, 19, 05

Charter vote resonates with Valley Iraqis Likely passage gives many hope 10. 18. 05  

Dividing the Chaldeans from the Assyrians by the Iraqi Constitution  10, 18, 05

A monument in France dedicated to the Remembrance of Assyro-Chaldean massacres by the Ottoman Turks. 10, 17, 05

Swing state' of Nineveh may be moving in favour of constitution 10, 15, 05 

Iraq votes for the Constitution and for its future 10, 14, 05

Forgotten victims - Iraqi Christians who speak the language of Jesus  10, 14, 05

Mgr Sako: people in Kirkuk have not read the constitution but will vote  10,13, 05

Terrorism strikes all Iraqis, says Patriarch 10, 13, 05

Assyriska a national football team without a country  10, 12, 05

Referendum: 'Yes' in Kurdistan and Southern cities and 'No' in Kirkuk, al Anbar and Diala 10, 12, 05

Chaos depriving Towns from Voting - The Minorities Fear the Domination of Islamic Parties10, 12, 05 

Bas-reliefs of winged goddesses discovered in western Iran 10, 12, 05

Immigration of Iraqi Chaldeans Abroad Passes through Jordan 10, 12, 05

Baghdadis tell their stories  10, 12, 05

Assyrialogist Henry Saggs Dies at 84 10, 10, 05

Letter by Ms. Jacqueline Zomaya The Assyrian representative to the Iraqi National Assembly 10, 10, 05

The Kurds are "cleansing" their domain ­ and provoking a civil war in Iraq  10, 09, 05

Nestorian label "imposed unjustly upon the Assyrians"  10, 08, 05

Iran's Assyrian MP-Felicitation to the Supreme Leader  10, 8, 05

Syriac Manuscripts from the Vatican Library: Volume 1 10, 08, 05

Sunnis Threaten Referendum Boycott if Rules Not Changed  10, 05, 05

Helping the Iraqi refugees in Jordan  10, 04, 05

Final Draft of Iraqi Constitution  10, 03, 05

Two More Assyrian Children Orphaned  10, 02, 05

Discoveries of the Assyrian antiquities in Syria 10, 01, 05 

Sectarian Strife tears apart Baghdad's Neighborhoods 10, 01, 05



















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