IRAQ: Christians live in fear of death squads
BAGHDAD, 19 October 2006 (IRIN) - Julie Carlo, 36, has tried to leave Iraq
for Jordan several times to be with her parents, but hasn't been allowed
in by the Jordanian authorities. The reason for her desperation to leave
is her religion. She is Christian and has been threatened by Islamic militants.
“Recently, life for Christians in Iraq has turned into a horror movie,” Carlo
said. “I will leave everything here [and] even if I do not have anything
to eat there [Jordan], it is better to die from hunger than be beheaded.”
Carlo is one of thousands of people from the minority group who are receiving
death threats and are living in fear. Threats have increased since Pope Benedict
XVI, head of the Catholic Church, made a speech on 12 September that included
what were perceived to be disparaging comments about Islam. This caused fury
among segments of the Muslim community worldwide.
The repercussions of the Pope’s speech continue to reverberate in Iraq, bringing
a new level of threat to an already shrinking Christian population. Although
the Pope apologised soon after for the comments he made, the damage is seemingly
irreparable in Iraq.
“There were cases of Christians being killed but it was part of the ongoing
violence in our country and not a direct threat against our community,” Carlo
said. “We have been clearly advised through letters and intimidating leaflets
that all Christians should leave Iraq because the punishment is going to
be worse in coming days.”
Several Islamic groups had threatened to kill Christians unless the Pope
“Their leader [the Pope] has verbally abused and offended our religion and
the Prophet. Unfortunately, he did not analyse the consequences of his speech.
Our country is an Islamic land and they [Christians] will have to rely on
the Pope’s charity from now on,” said Abu Jaffar, an Islamic extremist from
Muhammad's Army, a Sunni insurgent group.
Carlo and her family have lost three of their relatives over the past two
weeks and she received a threat on Monday.
“They [the extremists] do not care about who we are or what age we are, they
are furious and want us out. The Pope should have thought better before offending
one of the biggest religions in the world,” Carlo said.
Christian community shrinking
The last Iraqi census, in 1987, counted 1.4 million Christians, but many
left during the 1990s when economic sanctions were imposed on the country.
According to the local Christians Peace Association (CPA), about 700,000
Christians remain in Iraq, making up about 3 percent of the population.
Church attendance has decreased considerably in Iraq and at least 60 percent
of Baghdad’s churches have closed after receiving threats from extremists
since the Pope’s speech.
“Less than 20 percent of the devout [Christian community] who were attending
prayers are continuing to come to the church. Thousands have left in the
past weeks to other countries and we are sure that soon this church is going
to be forced to close too,” said Reverend Zayya Edward, the pastor of the
Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad.
Many Christians have taken refuge in the town of A’ain Kawa, a few kilometres
from the city of Arbil in the Kurdish north, which has become the main centre
for internally displaced Christians.
There are no official numbers of how many are taking refugee in the area,
but religious leaders say the number is in the thousands.
In the capital, the Dora and Karrada districts used to be home to the Christian
community but are now empty. Christians in Mosul and Kirkuk, in the north,
have also witnessed dozens of killings and threats.
Beheaded and dismembered
On Wednesday, the beheaded and dismembered body of a priest from the Syriac
Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary was found in the northern city of Mosul.
Father Boulos Iskander, 59, was kidnapped several weeks ago and his family
was in constant contact with the abductors who demanded a ransom payment
as well as the publication of a rejection of the Pope’s comments on Islam.
His death has increased fear within the Christian community, who are calling
for international assistance to help them leave the country.
“We urge the international Christian community to help us to leave Iraq before
we have the same fate that Father Boulos had,” said Lucas Barini, a spokesman
Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights has called on all religious groups to put
aside differences and help the local Christian community.
"The main reason for such targeting is merely religious and in this case
religious leaders should intervene to prevent more violence and forget their
beliefs and remember that everyone is a human being," said Hummam Dairi,
public officer in the Ministry of Human Rights.
"Our ministry has asked for international support and we hope that we soon
can bring more stability and safety to this community," Dairi added.
In the meantime, Christians who can not leave Iraq make do the best they
can. Christian parents have stopped their children from attending schools
and universities after many fellow students made verbal threats against Christian
Christian women have started to wear ‘Abayas’ (the traditional full-length
cloak that Muslim women wear) and head scarves to prevent them from being
distinguished from Muslim women.
“We now are being forced to be Christians just in our heart because externally
we should be like Muslims, even though we don’t have anything to do with
the sectarian violence” Carlo said.