Sectarian cleansing spreads to Christians in Iraq
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Christians are fleeing in droves from the southern Baghdad
district of Dora after Sunni insurgents told them they would be killed unless
they converted to Islam or left, according to Christian leaders and families
By Liz Sly
Similar episodes of what has become known as sectarian cleansing raged through
Baghdad neighborhoods last year as Sunnis drove Shiites from Sunni areas
and Shiites drove Sunnis from Shiite ones, but this marks the first apparent
attempt to empty an entire Baghdad neighborhood of Christians, the Christians
The exodus began three weeks ago after a fatwa, or religious edict, was issued
by Sunni insurgents offering Christians a stark choice: to convert to Islam
and pay an ancient Islamic tax known as "jizyah," or to depart within 24
hours and leave their property behind. If they did neither, they said, they
Sunni gunmen have been enforcing the edict with a dozen or so kidnappings,
a shooting, by knocking on doors and by posting leaflets on walls - actions
that have prompted hundreds of Christians to leave an area that was once
home to one of Baghdad's largest Christian communities.
The insurgents' campaign in Dora is the first major incident of sectarian
cleansing since the Baghdad security plan, a centerpiece of President Bush's
strategy to win in Iraq, went into effect in mid-February and extra U.S.
troops began arriving in Baghdad in an effort to retake the city from insurgents
"They are talking about security plans and bringing peace, but nothing arrived
in Dora. There are no rules, no government and no government forces," said
Bishop Shlimon Warduni, auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Patriarchate, the
ancient Christian sect to which most of the Christians in the Dora area belong.
"This is a full-scale persecution. In all of Iraq's history we didn't face
a situation like this."
About 150 fleeing families have reported to churches elsewhere in Baghdad,
seeking help in finding alternative accommodations, he said. Many others
with resources or relatives in safer areas have left Dora without informing
church leaders, said Yonadem Kanna, a Christian member of parliament representing
the Assyrian Democratic Party. Kanna estimates that 300 families have been
driven out of Dora in the past three weeks.
Iraq's minority Christian community, put at 800,000 on the eve of the U.S.
invasion, has already been decimated by threats, fear and intimidation over
the past four years, and as many as half of Iraq's Christians are now living
outside the country, according to the latest report of the U.S. International
Commission on Religious Freedom issued last week.
Church leaders estimate that half of Dora's Christian community has already
fled the notoriously violent Sunni extremist stronghold in southwestern Baghdad,
a community of 500,000 in which Sunnis, Shiites and Christians once lived
alongside one another. Shiites have already been expelled from all but the
southernmost edge of the neighborhood. Although Christians had been individually
targeted, usually for ransom, as a community they had largely been ignored,
Among those who fled is Ayleen Georges, 40, whose husband was kidnapped in
early April by Sunni insurgents. They later apologized, told him they had
abducted the wrong man, and let him go. Ten days later, after the edict appeared,
they kidnapped him again.
He is too shaken to talk about being abducted, but she described how the
gunmen repeatedly told him he would be killed unless he converted to Islam
or left his home within 24 hours.
"They said to him, `Why haven't you become a Muslim?' He told them, `We have
faith in the Virgin Mary.' And then they cursed the Virgin Mary," she said,
breaking down in tears. "They told him to leave within 24 hours and they
said we had to leave all our property and possessions behind, or we would
About a dozen similar kidnappings have taken place, scattered across the
Dora area, with the apparent intention of terrorizing Christians into leaving,
said Christian lawmaker Abdul Ahad Afram, of the Assyrian Democratic Party.
Though there was a similar drive to eject Christians from the northern city
of Mosul last year, this is the first systematic drive against Christians
in Baghdad, he said.
"In Dora we're seeing an organized operation to kick out all the Christians
and seize their property," he said.
The instruction to leave behind all property and possessions was emphasized
by the insurgents in the area, and those who fled say they did not dare take
so much as a suitcase.
Sanharib Benuel, 23, left his home with his mother and brother last week
after fliers spelling out the threat were posted on the walls around his
neighborhood. He hoped to trick the Sunni insurgents by packing his suitcases,
leaving a Sunni neighbor in his house, and then arranging for another neighbor
to transport the suitcases to a relative's home the following day.
But within hours, he said, gunmen came to the house and ordered the neighbor
to leave, telling him: "This is a Christian house, and it has been confiscated."
They then ransacked the house and stole its contents, said Benuel, who is
now living in a church in another Baghdad neighborhood and is working at
the church as a guard.
Abdullah al-Noufali, head of the Christian Endowment, a state body that oversees
Iraq's churches, said he had heard of many instances in which local Sunni
residents had offered to help or protect their threatened Christian neighbors.
He blames outsiders - the al-Qaida-affiliated insurgents who have converged
on Dora over the past three years, turning it into one of Baghdad's most
notorious and violent extremist strongholds.
"The problem isn't religious, it's economic. The Christians are soft targets.
They don't react with violence. They will pay or leave," al-Noufali said.
"Families are leaving every day, and by this summer, there won't be one Christian
left in Dora."
According to Kanna, the pressure on Christians in Dora has intensified since
the arrival in recent months of a fresh influx of al-Qaida-affiliated insurgents
squeezed out of their stronghold in western Anbar province by a U.S.-backed
tribal alliance. Gunmen began visiting churches in the area and ordered them
to take down the cross, and since then, all the area's clergymen have fled,
and the district's nine churches have closed.
Though U.S. forces have increased their presence in the area since the Baghdad
security plan went into effect, they appear oblivious to this latest persecution
of Christians, said Ahmed al-Mukhtar, 29, a salesman who joined the exodus
after gunmen opened fire on three of his neighbors as they drove to work
together in late April, prompting all the Christian families he knows in
the immediate vicinity to flee.
"They don't know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys," he said.
"When the Americans patrol, people rush to open their shops and to go shopping,
and when they leave, everyone rushes home. The gunmen are free to do anything,
to kill anyone to force anyone to leave."
A U.S. military spokesman did not respond to a query about the Christian
exodus from Dora, but U.S. officials have pointed to the success of the Baghdad
security plan in bringing about a sharp reduction in the level of Sunni-Shiite
sectarian violence in recent weeks.
© 2007, Chicago Tribune.