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 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
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
"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
"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
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
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