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Iraq's Christians Rely on Expatriate Votes
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Baghdad -- With more Iraqi Christians living abroad than in their home country, their divided leadership here is hoping expatriate votes will help win parliamentary seats and reaffirm the minority's historical identity.

"We've been here for hundreds of years. We should be regarded as first-class and not third-class citizens as we were being treated under Saddam's regime," said Fouad Boudagh, head of the National Caldani (Chaldean) Council.

Iraqi Christians, who make up just three percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are estimated to number more than one million expatriates.

About 200,000 Iraqi Christians live in the US city of Detroit alone, Emanuel Shaba Yokhana of the Assyrian Patriotic party said.

"They can help us win at least 15 seats in the next Iraqi National Assembly," he said.

Iraqis are to elect a transitional 275-member national assembly on January 30, the country's first free elections in half a century.

The new assembly will almost certainly be dominated by parties from the Shiite majority, but Christians, represented by eight political parties, are also hoping to get a small slice of the action.

The new assembly will write a permanent constitution, which if adopted in a referendum will form the basis for another poll to be held by December 15 next year.

Iraq's Christians, who feel marginalized by the majority Arab Muslims, are hoping to influence the new constitution and reestablish the historical identities of the Assyrian, Chaldeans and Syriac Christians.

Their desire stems from the fact that these groups lived in what is now Iraq before Arabs arrived from the Arabian peninsula.

"Our heritage as Iraqi Christians is fading. Over time, we have become accustomed to an Arabic style of thinking," says Ashur Yackub of the Bethnahrain Patriotic Union.

The country's provisional constitution, signed in March, guarantees freedom for all religions, but it has not assuaged the anxieties of the small Christian community - based mostly in Baghdad and Mosul - amid the torrent of violence and identity politics sweeping Iraq.

Churches in Iraq have been targeted in bomb and gun attacks since Saddam Hussein's ouster in April last year.

Christian leaders say they do not think the elections will result in an Islamic state similar to the one in neighbouring Iran, and they all agree on the importance of a secular Iraqi state where freedom of faith is guaranteed.

Eight parties are representing Christians, but they are siding with different coalitions in the electoral race.

Some leaders said the division was due to attempts by big parties to swallow up newly-formed smaller ones.

"We agreed first to introduce a one unified list, but the Assyrian Democratic Movement messed everything up," said Yashu Majeed Hadaya, head of the Syriac Independent Gathering.

The attacks on Christian tragets have led the parties to adopt a low profile.

Most parties use small houses around Baghdad for their headquarters, with no external signs revealing the identity of the occupants.

While some imams in mosques urge voters to register and vote in favor of certain sides, Christian churches are not used for electoral purposes.

"At first we thought of using churches to tell people who we are and urge them to register" says Farid Toma Hirmiz of the Caldani Democratic Union. "Because of the security situation, many Christians are no longer church-goers. We will not be able to use churches in our campaign."

By Salwan Binni

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