Homeless in Chaldaea
"If the emigration of Christians continues as up to now, not only one of the oldest sections of the population will in a few years have withdrawn from our country, but the world will also have lost a great legacy." With those shocking words recently the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Kirkuk, Louis Sako, addressed the United Nations and asked for support. The Christian "exodus" harboured the danger that Iraq's rich intellectual-cultural heritage connected with it would simply be "erased".
The Archbishop speaks for the Chaldeans, the largest church in Iraq, and at the same time the largest non-Muslim minority. Since the 15th century they have been united with Rome and understand themselves as "Original-Iraqi". Their name comes from the landscape Chaldaea in Southern Iraq, from which according to Biblical tradition the progenitor Abraham set out in order to follow the promise of the Promised Land. In the song "My father was a homeless Aramean" the Book Deuteronomy reminds of the essential feature of Jewish and then also Christian existence: the homelessness in this world. The Arameans were nomadic tribes which immigrated under the reign of the Assyrians from the west into Mesopotamia. The second largest Old-oriental church in Iraq, the Assyrian Church, takes up that name. With it are meant the descendants of that Apostolic Church of the East which in pre-Islamic time settled in Seleucia-Ctesiphon near Babylon. After the Council of Ephesus in 431 they parted with the western church and use in their liturgy until today the Aramaic-Syrian. Besides, there are in Iraq also Orthodox Armenians, Roman and Syrian Catholics and Protestants.
The situation of the Christian minority between the Euphrates and Tigris is highly dramatic. Officially, their number is given with three percent of the 27 million Iraqis. The Christian faith which according to church tradition was there once spread by St. Thomas and still in the seventh century when Islam came in was the religion of the majority of the population experiences massive pressure at the beginning of the 21st century. Human rights activists describe it - especially since the beginning of the US-British invasion five years ago - clearly as the "greatest persecution of Christians of the present".
Traitors and Spies of the West?
At the beginning of the nineties, when Dictator Saddam Hussein was still in power, there had been a first wave of emigration among Christians as a result of the Second Gulf War because of Kuwait and the subsequent turmoil. Now the baptized are threatened to be crushed between Sunni and Shiite extremists. Under Hussein, as brutally as he ruled, the Christians were able at least to live in peace and freedom of religion, provided they did not politically take opposition action..
In the recent waves of persecution by radical Muslims many Christian families in Baghdad or in the country had quickly to gather up a few belongings and to disappear - often under a 25-hours ultimatum. The inhabitants of the Baghdad district of Doura were particularly affected. They mainly belong to the educated middle class, often academics are among them. In the disastrous chaos of war, in which not a few had to live from hand to mouth, some worked as translators for the British or American military. That in turn fitted into the hate propaganda of the Islamists who slandered the "infidels" as "traitors, collaborators and spies of the West".
There is the example of a taxi driver, who got death threats and was finally abducted. The eleven-year-old daughter witnessed the violence and since then has been seriously psychologically traumatized. In order to meet the ransom demands the family sold its house and borrowed money from relatives. When the pressure was no longer bearable flight alone was left. There are also shocking reports, how Sunni and Shiite extremists extort "protection money" from Christian merchants and traders or force them to convert to Islam. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" said that because of that in spring more than a hundred Christian families had suddenly overnight to leave the city. It can mean death to openly wear a cross, to stick up a Jesus face on one's car or as woman to go on the street unveiled. In public life - except with worship - the educated Iraqi Christians disapprove of the veil.
Also in the Kurdish North tragedies happened shortly after the invasion of the occupation forces. "Spiegel Online" tells the terrible story of a 33-year-old doctor who in Mosul was an eyewitness of a bomb attack on the St. Paul Church during a service. The death of the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Farraj Paulos Rahho, who had been abducted and killed by radical Muslims, became internationally known. Also a large number of unknown victims who appear in no statistics has to be added.
At a conference in Frankfurt / Main the human rights activist Huzairan Hakari from the Society for Threatened Peoples explained the situation: Still in 1987 one assumed that about 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq. Today there were just half as many of them. Who can only somehow afford it will leave the country. Who has no choice remains frightened, intimidated or traumatized or goes to the Kurdish North, where you as a Christian - so far - are still somewhat "safe".
While the horrors of the Iraqi civil war meanwhile in the Western media - particularly in the case of assassinations - occur only in the margin, the refugees from there are just those who now once again increasingly direct the media's attention to the Middle East. More than two million people are currently on the run at home alone. The number of those who fled into the neighbouring countries Jordan and Syria is at least just as high. Both countries are now trying to stop any further access.
Amnesty International reports that in the Iraqi neighbouring countries a hostile atmosphere against the refugees is spreading. They get no work permits. Their children rarely visit a school, because they have to contribute to the maintenance of the family by casual jobs or begging.
Meanwhile Europe is discussing how many Iraqis in which country can unbureaucratically find refuge. The Minister of the Interior Wolfgang Schäuble has suggested that Germany should particularly offer assistance to Iraqi Christians. But his proposal was partly met with reservations: With the refugee issue one should not solely concentrate on Christians, they said. There were other religious minorities which also were persecuted and must also fear for their lives: e.g. the Yesides (an age-old religion with Babylonian-Sufi-Islamic rites and teachings), the Mandeans (a religion oriented towards John the Baptist with elements of the Gnosis) of whom several thousand live in Germany. Moreover, the Federal Republic had always granted political asylum - even Muslim Iraqis. Christians should without special treatment face the ordinary asylum procedure like all others.
While the 'Society for Threatened Peoples' still a short time ago had for Germany vehemently demanded the reception of tens of thousands of quota refugees it now declares itself also in favour of help in the refugee areas. The Göttingen organisation recommends that the Federal Government and the European Union make a programme particularly for Christians in the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. For it was relatively calm and peaceful in the northern Nineveh plain. There about three million Kurds live peacefully together with an Arab minority. Many Christians who have already sought refuge now wait how the situation will develop around Baghdad or Basra, the two major centres of conurbation.
The Chaldean and Assyrian Church were the first to respond. With the "Christian Aid Program" they take care of building, irrigation, infrastructure and medical treatment. In addition, the authorities of the autonomous Kurdish region finance simple houses and grant police protection.
But in Archbishop Louis Sako's opinion also the Christians in the neighbouring countries of Iraq and in the West are in request. There are encouraging examples of alleviating the Iraqis' suffering. For instance the Viennese doctor Eva-Maria Hobiger. Since 2001 she has with Austrian support been running the medical relief project "Aladin's Lamp" for children with cancer in the South Iraq city of Basra and organizes medicine deliveries. The only mother-child hospital of the town with over a million inhabitants suffers from overcrowding and lack of doctors due to the influx of refugees. The former Archbishop of Basra, Gabriel Kassab, called the doctor because of her commitment "Angel of the Poorest." Protestant and Catholic aid agencies from Germany are with projects on the spot.
The Linz church historian Hans Hollerweger who has co-founded the "Initiative Christian Orient" (www.christlicher-orient.at) has for years been pointing to the situation of Christians, provides assistance, creates a critical public opinion - also with the magazine ICO. Last he has visited the country in April. He deplores that in the West the whole of Iraq is often presented as war zone. But that was not true. In northern Iraq, in Kurdistan, the security situation was stable. In the southward adjacent areas towards Mosul the authorities have even increased the security measures by sending police to protect the Christian villages. He also energetically points out: What the refugees in northern Iraq urgently need was assistance and attention of the Christians of the West. "The precondition for it is that church authorities find out what the situation in northern Iraq is and in cooperation with the local churches take responsibility for projects." Hollerweger warns: "The Christian faith was already in the first century brought to the Iraq of today. There are the roots of our faith; it is biblical land. We should never forget that our faith comes from the Orient and that from the beginning Christians lived there and despite adverse circumstances have handed the faith down through the times."
And how do the politicians deal with this situation? U.S. President George W. Bush, who on his Europe-farewell tour also visited Pope Benedict XVI, repeatedly justified the military invasion of Iraq. No word of blatant, even culpable misperceptions of the situation and self-willed action! The UN speaks of more than 150.000 civilian dead since the invasion. According to protocol Pope and U.S. President are said to have talked about the situation of Christians in Iraq. The content of the conversation in the course of the also according to the protocol exceptionally gracious reception in the Vatican Gardens, is not known.
Iraq's Kurdish President of State, Jalal Talabani, recently received Christian leaders in his residence in Baghdad and promised to work for an improvement of the Christians' situation. But what power has he really got? A Catholic from Mosul told the news agency "Asia News": "In 2003 Iraq suffered from the international economic embargo. When the invasion began people lived here under continuous pressure. What we hoped for after Saddam Hussein was that we finally stand up and make progress, not that we lose ground again. Of course, it's a terrible exaggeration when some here say that they long to be back in Saddam Hussein's times. Christians had unlike Kurds or Shiites not to suffer from persecution and extermination efforts. Admittedly, that was also owed to the fact that we were regarded as 'easily to be treated". Our faith rejects violence and armed conflicts. As a minority, even when we critically faced the policy of the leading secular Baath Party, we were hardly open to attack. Then as now we were nevertheless a very vulnerable community. But today - and that has changed in comparison to the past - we feel like strangers in our country."
Freedom of Religion in the Islamic Way
When in 2005 the new Constitution of the country came to the vote, the Christians voted with the Islamic religious majority for the new state order. The Middle East expert and journalist Matthias Kopp (in the "Herder-Korrespondenz") pointed out the major shortcomings of the new Constitution. Article 2 admittedly guarantees the freedom to profess and practise one's faith. Christians, Yesides and Mandeans are explicitly mentioned. But at the same time Islam is called the fundamental source of legislation and jurisprudence. Kopp: "In the present situation and in the already established law schools and courts there is no place in this country for a genuine acceptance of religious freedom and Christians. The maturity of the Iraqi State will become apparent in the observance of those Articles of the Constitution which guarantee Muslims and Christians their freedom - in everyday life, in worship, in civil society." Admittedly, the Iraqi State likes to use social-charitable Christian assistance. But whether the government is willing and at all capable to improve the situation of Christian communities is another matter.