Iraqi Christians living in fear
Christians in Iraq came under attack again yesterday when 11 roadside bombs exploded in three areas of Baghdad killing five people. The bombings are part of an al-Qa'ida campaign against Iraq's ancient Christian community, many of whom have already fled abroad.
It was the third round of attacks since five suicide bombers stormed the Catholic cathedral, Our Lady of Salvation, on 31 October, killing 56 Christians and 12 others according to police.
The massacre was the worst atrocity against Christians since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The number of bombs that exploded yesterday shows that al-Qa'ida in Iraq operating under the guise of its umbrella organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq, retains the ability to launch multiple attacks on different targets. This is despite claims by the government and US officers that they have eliminated the majority of al-Qa'ida commanders.
The roadside bombs went off within the space of an hour in areas where Christians live. Four houses belonging to them were hit by the blasts and, in addition, two mortar rounds were fired at Christians in the largely Sunni district of Dora in the south of the city.
The number of Christians in Baghdad has fallen from 400,000 to 100,000 in the last seven years, according to the German NGO The Society for Threatened Peoples. It says that Christians who remain no longer dare identify themselves by sending their children to Christian schools or by attending mass. Some Iraqi Christian leaders say that the violence against their community has become so extreme that Christians should leave the country.
Christian clergy in Iraq estimate that one million from their community have fled while a further 1.5 million are still in the country, though these figures look much too high.
In a statement the Islamic State of Iraq justified the massacre in the cathedral by claiming that the Coptic Church in Egypt was holding two women who have converted to Islam. It said: "The Ministry of War in the Islamic State of Iraq announces that all Christian institutions, organisations, centres, leaders and followers are legitimate targets for the Mujahedin [holy warriors] wherever they can find them."
Christians have called on the government to protect them and there is general anger in Baghdad that the 1,500 army and police checkpoints in the city are so ineffective in stopping bombers. It is also becoming clear that the Iraqi government's numerous intelligence organisations have failed to penetrate and disrupt al-Qa'ida's cells in Baghdad, Mosul and other cities with a large Sunni population. The Christians are particularly vulnerable because, outside rural areas in Nineveh province in northern Iraq, they are not numerous enough to have their own militia.
By Patrick Cockburn & published by the Independent
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A spate of early morning bomb and mortar attacks on homes of Christians in Baghdad Wednesday left at least three people dead and 26 wounded, an interior ministry official said.
"Two mortar shells and 10 homemade bombs targeted the homes of Christians in different neighbourhoods of Baghdad between 6:00 am and 8:00 am (0300 and 0500 GMT)," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The toll is three dead and 26 wounded."The attacks come 10 days after 44 Christian worshippers, two priests and seven security forces personnel died during the seizure of a Baghdad cathedral by Islamist militants and the ensuing shootout when it was stormed by troops.
On Tuesday, three homes in the Mansur district of western Baghdad belonging to Christians were firebombed without causing any casualties, an interior ministry source said.On November 3, Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Baghdad cathedral bloodbath and warned it would further step up attacks on Christians.
The extremists said they had carried out the church attack to force the release of converts to Islam allegedly being detained by the Coptic Church in Egypt. Days afterwards it declared Christians everywhere "legitimate targets."
A senior Iraqi clergyman said at the weekend Iraq's Christians should leave the country or face being killed at the hands of Al-Qaeda. "If they stay they will be finished, one by one," Archbishop Athanasios Dawood told the BBC.
Iraq's premier however on Tuesday cautioned other countries not to encourage Christians to abandon their homeland, after France took in dozens of people wounded in the October 31 cathedral attack.
On his first visit to the church targeted on October 31, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said that at a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 he had asked the pontiff "not to let the east be emptied of Christians, nor the West of Muslims."
"The countries that have welcomed the victims ... of this attack (on the church) have done a noble thing, but that should not encourage emigration," he said on a visit to the Syriac Catholic cathedral where the massacre occurred.
Thirty-four Iraqi Christians and a Muslim guard wounded in the incident flew in to France on Monday for admission to hospitals for treatment.French Immigration Minister Eric Besson has said this fitted France's "tradition of asylum" to take them in, and that asylum would be "handed out generously" to those who seek it.
France plans a second evacuation flight in the coming weeks to bring out a further 93 Christians.Besson said that 1,300 Iraqi Christians had been granted asylum in France since autumn 2007, an acceptance rate of 85 percent for asylum-seekers from among the community.
An estimated 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq before the US-led invasion of 2003 but that number has since shrunk to around 500,000 in the face of repeated attacks against their community and churches.Christians in Baghdad have now dwindled to around 150,000, a third of their former population in the capital.
Copyright © 2010 AFP.
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A wave of bombings and mortar attacks struck Christian areas across Baghdad Wednesday, sending families fleeing their homes a day after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged the government would protect them.
Interior Ministry officials said improvised bombs and a car bomb were detonated near the homes of Christians in at least seven neighborhoods in Baghdad late Tuesday and early Wednesday, killing at least four people and wounding more than 16.
The bombings, which came 10 days after more than 50 Christians were killed by Al Qaeda-linked gunmen who stormed a church during Sunday mass, have sown panic in the close-knit community.Some fled their homes to seek refuge at the very church which was attacked on Oct 31.
“We were so afraid – we left without taking anything,” says Umm Danny, surrounded by her three children, a niece, and a nephew in the church hall of Our Lady of Salvation in central Baghdad. She said they hear explosions so often in their south Baghdad neighborhood of Dora they didn’t think anything of it until one detonated on their block near the home of a particularly devout Christian family.
“We went barefoot onto the roof and climbed onto our Muslim neighbor’s house,” she says. “They helped us and told us to stay with them but we were afraid.” Umm Danny, who did not want her full name used, said the neighbors cried when they left.“I think this is only a warning,” says another Christian planning to leave for the Kurdish capital of Erbil. “We are expecting anything at anytime. It seems as if they can do anything without anyone stopping them.”
Government discourages Christian exodus
Mr. Maliki on Tuesday met with senior church leaders, telling them in a meeting aired on state-run television that his government would protect Christians.He thanked France for sending a hospital plane to take more than 30 of the wounded for treatment but said it "must not be an incentive to emigrate." The Iraqi government has asked the Vatican and the West not to encourage Christians to leave Iraq.
Almost half of the approximately 800,000 Christians in Iraq before the war are believed to have fled – many given refugee status in the West.The assault on the church by a team of gunmen who passed through checkpoints with explosives along with more than 20 bombs in Shiite areas two days later have shaken faith in the government’s ability to protect the population.
Iraqis blame government for weak security
More than eight months after Iraqis voted in national elections, Maliki is struggling to form a governing coalition. Iraq’s parliament has been ordered back to work on Thursday but it appears unlikely they will elect a speaker.
“I blame the government for all these attacks. It’s a very weak government and it can’t protect us,” says Moshi Zeya Moshi, shouting in pain as he talked on the phone. He was wounded in the thigh when a bomb placed under his neighbor’s car exploded in their Senaa Street neighborhood on Wednesday morning. Mr. Moshi, who works as a guard, said he had gone out after the first explosion to check on his elderly neighbor when the bomb exploded.
The "Islamic State in Iraq," a group linked to Al Qaeda, declared responsibility for the Oct. 31 attack and followed with a warning that it would continue to kill Christians.
Kurdish leader: Our doors are open
The church attack followed by the bombings in neighborhoods has left many terrified that the next step will be gunmen breaking into their homes. In the northern city of Mosul, attacks on Christians became progressively more targeted until victims were abducted or killed in their homes and shops. The killings there sparked an exodus of more than 1,000 families north to relative safety of the Kurdish territories.
Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih said he had spoken with the Chaldean patriarch to tell him the Kurdish regional government would give the fleeing families refuge.“It is our duty. It is the least we can do in this hour of crisis. Our doors are open – they can come, they can work,” Mr. Salih told the Monitor. "There is no notion of closing the border,” he said, responding to rumors sweeping the Christian community.
Church leaders uncertain how to advise followers
The attacks have left angry church officials in a quandary over what to tell a community they have traditionally encouraged not to leave.“The security authorities promised to protect us, but we don’t know what kind of procedures they’ve put in place,” Syrian Archbishop Matti Shaba Matoka, one of the small group of clerics who met Maliki, told the Monitor.
Next door at Our Lady of Salvation, there appeared to be minimal security outside the church where the doors were hanging on their hinges and there were bullet holes in the walls.“Our bishops cannot do anything,” said one Christian man, who said he blamed the political vacuum for the violence.
Christian member of parliament Ynadim Kennah said the bombings pointed out the short-comings of the government security institutions and the chaos of the political vacuum.“They are an evidence of the failure of the intelligence agencies," he asked. "What can the forces do in the streets if they don’t have intelligence information?”
By the Christian Science Monitor
Pic: People inspect the scene of a bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 10. Iraqi Christian families flee their homes, after a wave of attacks by Khalid Mohammed/AP.
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Christians have inhabited what is modern day Iraq for about 2,000 years, tracing their ancestry to ancient Mesopotamia and surrounding lands.Theirs is a long and complex history.
Before the Gulf War in 1991, they numbered about one million. By the time of the US-led invasion in 2003 that figure fell to about 800,000.Since then the numbers are thought to have fallen dramatically.
Under Saddam Hussein, in overwhelmingly Muslim Iraq, some Christians rose to the top, notably Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, and the Baathist regime kept a lid on anti-Christian violence.But this started to change after the removal of Saddam Hussein and the US-led occupation of Iraq.
A spate of attacks on Christian targets in Mosul, Baghdad and elsewhere in 2004 and 2005 accompanied a more general breakdown in security in Iraq. It is thought that proportionally more Christians - who were sometimes accused by extremists of collaborating with the "crusading" US forces - left.
Clerics and members of their congregations who have stayed have continued to face the threat of kidnapping by some extremist Muslim groups as well as targeted attacks.In March 2010, hundreds of Iraqi Christians demonstrated in a town near Mosul and in Baghdad, calling for government action after a spate of killings.
The killings of eight Christians also prompted an appeal by Pope Benedict for Iraqi authorities to protect vulnerable religious minorities.Two years earlier, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and murdered.
In the wake of the 1991 Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions, many Iraqi Christians, who had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbours for decades, left to join family in the West.
The secular government of Saddam Hussein did not persecute Christians in the way it did the Kurds and some Shia areas, but it did subject some Christian communities to its "relocation programmes".For Christians, this was particularly marked in the oil-rich areas, where the authorities tried to create Sunni Arab majorities near the strategic oilfields.
Christians live in the capital, Baghdad, and are also concentrated in the northern cities of Kirkuk, Irbil and Mosul - once a major Mesopotamian trading hub known as Nineveh in the Bible.Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but who recognise the Pope's authority.Chaldeans are an ancient people, some of whom still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.
The other significant community are Assyrians, the descendants of the ancient empires of Assyria and Babylonia.After their empires collapsed in the 6th and 7th Centuries BC, the Assyrians scattered across the Middle East.
They embraced Christianity in the 1st Century AD, with their Ancient Church of the East believed to be the oldest in Iraq.Assyrians also belong to the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Chaldean Church, and various Protestant denominations.
When Iraq became independent in 1932, the Iraqi military carried out large-scale massacres of Assyrians in retaliation for their collaboration with Britain, the former colonial power.Villages were destroyed, and churches and monasteries torn down.In recent years, however, some places of worship were rebuilt.
Other ancient Churches include Syrian Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic Christians, who fled from massacres in Turkey in the early 20th Century.There are also small Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities, as well as Anglicans and Evangelicals.
ATTACKS ON IRAQI CHRISTIANS SINCE 2003
Aug 2004 - series of bombings targets five churches, killing 11
October 2006 - Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, snatched in Mosul by group demanding ransom. Despite payment of the ransom, priest found beheaded, his arms and legs also cut off.
June 2007 - Ragheed Ganni - a priest and secretary to Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahh, killed in 2008 - shot dead in his church along with three companions
January 2008 - Bombs go off outside three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul, two churches in Kirkuk and four in Baghdad
February 2008 - Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahh kidnapped; body found in shallow grave two weeks later
April 2008 - Fr Adel Youssef, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, shot dead by unknown assailants
February 2010 - At least eight Christians die in a two-week spate of attacks in northern city of Mosul
By the BBC
Email This BlogThis! Share to Twitter Share to Facebook Share to Google Buzz 0 comments Iraqi Christians Are Already Home
On Sunday October 31 a group of militants seized a church in Baghdad, killing and wounding scores of Iraqi Christians and signalling yet another episode of unimaginable horror in the country since the US invasion of March 2003. Every group of Iraqis has faced terrible devastation as a result of this war, the magnitude of which is only now beginning to be discovered.
Having visited the country in 1999 I can testify that the situation in Iraq was difficult prior to the war. But the hardship suffered by many Iraqis, especially political dissidents, was in some way typicall of authoritarian and dictatorial regimes.Iraq could at that time be easily contrasted with other countries living under similar hardships, but what has happened since the war can barely be compared to any other country or any other wars since World War II.
Even putting aside the devastating death toll, the sheer scale of internal displacement and forced emigration is terrifying.This is a nation that had more or less maintained a consistent level of demographic cohesion for many generations and it was this cohesion that made Iraq what it was.
Christian Iraqi communities had co-existed alongside their Muslim neighbours for hundreds of years - the churches of the two main Christian groups, the Assyrians and Chaldeans, are dated back to the years AD 33 and 34 respectively.A recent editorial in an Arab newspaper was entitled "Arab Christians should feel at home." As moving as the article was, the fact remains that Arab Christians should not have to feel at home - they already are at home.
I recall a group of Iraqi children from a Chaldeans school performing the morning nashids, songs, before going to class. I dread to imagine how many of these innocent children were killed, wounded or forcefully displaced with their families, like millions of other Iraqis from all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
The 1987 census listed 1.4 million Christians living in Iraq. Now the figure is closer to half of that and it is rapidly dwindling. The plight of Iraqi Christians seems very similar to that of Palestinian Christians whose numbers plummeted and continue to fall following the 1967 Israeli occupation of Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Christian diaspora was a direct outcome of the Israeli occupation of historic Palestine in 1948 and the Israeli government sees no difference between a Palestinian Christian and a Muslim.
But none of these points are deemed worthy of discussion in much of the Western media, perhaps because it risks hurting the sensibility of the Israeli occupier. The troubling news coming from Iraq can now be manipulated by presenting the suffering of Christians as an offshoot of a larger conflict between Islamic militants and Christians communities in Iraq.
Iraqi society has long been known for its tolerance and acceptance of minorities. There were days when no-one used labels such as Shia, Sunni and Christians - there was one Iraq and one Iraqi people.This has changed completely because part of the strategy following the invasion was to emphasise and manipulate the ethnic and religious demarcation of the country to create insurmountable divides.
Without a centralised power to guide and channel the collective responses of the Iraqi people all hell broke loose. Masked men with convenient militant names but no identities disappeared as quickly as they popped up to wreak havoc in the country.Any communal trust that had held together the fabric of society dissolved.
There is no question regarding the brutality and sheer wickedness of those who murdered 52 Iraqi Christians, including a priest, in Baghdad's main Roman Catholic church. But to represent the issue as one of Muslim and Christian hostility - as one report misleadingly put it, "Iraq's Christians caught between majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni Muslims" - is a both a major injustice and a dangerous act of provocation.
When such notions become acceptable, foreign powers are enabled to justify their continued presence in Iraq on the premise that they are there to protect those caught in the middle. For hundreds of years every colonial power in the Middle East has used such logic to rationalise their violence and exploitation.
This arrogant, self-serving mentality compelled Republican strategist Jack Burkman to describe the people of the Middle East as "a bunch of barbarians in the desert" in an English Al-Jazeera programme.Such hubris is further strengthened by killings like the Roman Catholic church massacre. A US solider in Iraq, quoted on a recent Democracy Now programme, referred to Iraqi culture as a "culture of violence," boasting that his country was trying to do something about this.
What will it take to see the "bunch of barbarians" as human beings who are trying to survive, fend for their families and maintain an element of normality and dignity in their lives?As for "Iraq's Christians" I must disagree with that depiction which is used widely in the media. They are not Iraq's Christians but Iraqi Christians.No matter how far their numbers may dwindle they will remain Iraqis.
Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an internationally syndicated columnist and editor of www.PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book My Father Was A Freedom Fighter: Gaza's Untold Story is available now on Pluto Press. This article was first published by the Morning Star.
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Iraqi Christians on Sunday reaffirmed their faith in the face of Al-Qaeda, as 200 people celebrated mass in a bloodstained Baghdad cathedral where militants massacred 46 worshippers a week ago.
"The church is built on the love, the peace and the blood of the martyrs, not on the sword," Father Mukhlas Habash told parishioners gathered around a cross of burning candles, traced out on the floor of an otherwise bare nave.
The candles illuminated pieces of paper with the names of the 44 worshippers and two priests who were killed last Sunday after Al-Qaeda gunmen stormed the Syriac Christian cathedral in the heart of Baghdad and seized hostages.
By the time the drama ended after Iraqi forces raided the building, dozens of people had died, including Taher and Wassim, two priests who heroically tried to plead with the gunmen to spare the lives of their flock.
"Today we will pray for those who attacked us, attacked our church and killed fathers Taher and Wassim," Habash said in a homily given at about the same time the Sayidat al-Nejat cathedral was attacked seven days previously.Images of the dead were to be seen everywhere on Sunday, on posters on bloodstained and bullet-pocked walls, by the candles and on laminated photos passed out among the faithful.
Along the length and on both sides of the candle-lit cross stood worshippers, among them wounded survivors, holding candles as a passing priest blessed them with incense.The marks of the carnage were everywhere, on bullet-holed walls, chipped and broken woodwork, and cracked marble of some of the pillars. From the cupola, a disfigured fresco of the Virgin Mary looked down.
Following the attack the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), an Al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility in a statement that also said Christians everywhere were henceforth "legitimate targets."But on Sunday Father Habash sought to reassure his flock."Jesus said do not have fear," he told the congregation.
In the chancel, portraits of the victims lay amid a mountain of bouquets at the foot of a large wooden cross.Some of the faithful said they would not have missed this first mass since the deadly events of a week ago for all the world. The service was celebrated under tight security.
"It is a question of honour. We come here with the strength of our faith. The great message of Jesus Christ is not to hate our enemies," said Salem Ablahad, 47, a woodworker who was related to Taher, one of the dead priests.
Outside the cathedral gate Ikhlas Yussef said with a smile that she was happy to be there, and that the attacks would not scare Christians out of Iraq."To celebrate mass here today was important because we want to prove to the terrorists that no one will leave," said Yussef, 47, dressed entirely in black."Yes, I am very happy. This is like a shot in the hearts of the terrorists."
After the attack, one of worst targeting Iraqi Christians, many faithful said they would flee the country, like the two-thirds of the 450,000 Christians who lived in the capital before the 2003 US-led invasion."If people had said they wanted to leave, it was because they were in panic. But they will not do it," said Tony Boulas, a 45-year-old tradesman.
"We will not leave because we were the first here," he said in a reference to pre-Islamic Iraq.In Britain on Sunday, however, an Iraqi Christian leader said Christians should leave Iraq or face being killed by Al-Qaeda.
"If they stay they will be finished, one by one," London-based Archbishop Athanasios Dawood told the BBC in an interview."Which is better for us? To stay and be killed or emigrate to another place and to live in peace?"
Copyright © 2010 AFP