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The Plight of Iraqi Christians
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The kidnapping of Archbishop Basil Georges Casmoussa on January 17, 2005 in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and his subsequent release the following day, highlighted the plight of Iraqi Christians, like other Iraqi communities, facing threats from Islamist terrorists bent on plunging Iraq into ethnic conflict.

Deep Roots and Current Violence

The Iraqi daily Al-Mada recently carried a report about the ruins of what is believed to be the oldest Eastern Christian church, discovered in 1976 by an archeological team in the desert west of the holy Shi'ite city of Karbala. The church, known as Al-Qusair Church, was built in the 5th century, 120 years before the appearance of Islam and almost two centuries before the spread of Islam in what is known today as Iraq.

The church (53x13 feet) had fifteen arched doors. Inside archeologists found remnants of an altar and gammadion crosses. There were two small cemeteries, one within the church walls intended for the priests and one outside the walls for other church members.

During the Saddam regime, the eastern side of the church was converted into a training target for an artillery unit of the Iraqi army. A number of unexploded shells have been found within the church's perimeter. After the fall of Saddam, the tombs were desecrated by looters, who hoped to find gold buried with the dead. The Iraqi Department of Antiquities has recognized the historical significance of the church, and restoration and preservation are being considered. [1]

The Iraqi Christians

Iraqi Christians represent three percent of the Iraqi population (which is estimated at 26 million). [2] The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church - the Iraqi branch of Roman Catholicism. Chaldean Catholics are also known as "Assyrians." The patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church has clarified that "Assyrian" is an ethnic identity and "Chaldean" is a religious one. [3] There are other churches in Iraq, including the Roman Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Nestorian and Armenian. However, the distinction between these churches is not really understood by most Iraqi Muslims, who look upon all Christians as "People of the Book," as they are referred to in the Koran.

Under the secular Ba'th regime, the Christians in Iraq, who presented no threat to Saddam, enjoyed considerable religious freedom. In an interview with the Arabic-language London daily Al-Hayat, the Latin Patriarch in Iraq, Jan Suleiman, said that whenever Saddam Hussein was approached regarding a problem affecting the Christian education system in Iraq, he would intervene to resolve it. [4]

Violence Against Individuals

The high level of violence in Iraq has affected every sector of the Iraqi population, and Christians are no exception. Christians, however, have been specifically targeted by Islamists, who either accuse them of collaborating with the "invading crusading army" or label them infidels. As Islamist pressures mounted in Iraq, following its occupation, Christian businesses were destroyed, Christian university students were harassed and Christian women were forced to wear the veil. [5]

Suspected of Collaboration

Most Christian children attend Christian schools, where the teaching of a foreign language, primarily English, is a high priority in the curriculum. It is therefore understandable that the multinational forces have tapped the Christian community for office and translation work. However, the Christians are concerned that a prolonged occupation of Iraq by the multinational forces under the command of the United States will only heighten the accusations that they are collaborating with an occupation "originating from a Christian country." [6]

Recently, the unidentified "Brigades for the Liquidation of Christian Agents and Spies" has threatened to liquidate those working with the multinational forces and to "pursue them in their homes and churches." In placards posted in Christian areas, the Brigades wrote:

"The Christian minority enjoys peace and security in the land of the Muslim and in our country in particular. Its members have held senior positions in the State. But their malevolence toward Muslims became evident when the occupier entered our country. He found great support among them in the form of translators and agents who acted as informers against Muslims. Their churches receive evangelist groups. They spread moral corruption and pornography in our streets. Muslims have been arrested, women raped and houses destroyed as a result of Christians being agents of the occupiers." [7]

Violence Against Churches

In August 2004, five churches, one in Baghdad and four in Mosul, were hit in one day, in a coordinated attack that killed 12 people. In October, five churches in Baghdad were hit on the first day of the Muslim month of Ramadan. In November, eight people were killed in two church bombings. [8] The August attack on churches was followed on September 10 by mortar attacks against the Assyrian town in Bakhdeda (also referred to as Qarqosh ) in the Ninevah Governorate in northern Iraq. [9]

The Destruction of Businesses

With the public sector and the military all but closed to them, Christians have focused on the services sector of the economy and retail business. Because of Islamic restrictions on alcohol consumption, Iraqi governments have limited the liquor retail business to Christians, who, in turn, have been meeting an obviously high demand for alcoholic beverages among a large segment of the Iraqi Muslim population. In fact, a considerable amount of money under the "Oil for Food Program" was used by the Saddam regime for the import of the most expensive brands of alcoholic beverages for Saddam Hussein, his sons, and the high echelons of the secular Ba'th ruling party. At one time, the Coalition Provisional Authority was contemplating a public auction of high quality vintage wine and champagne found in the cellars of the palaces of Saddam, his sons, and their cronies.

Shortly after the fall of Saddam, Islamists, who took control of the streets of many Iraqi cities, began to target Christian owners of liquor stores. They first ordered the owners to close their businesses; if the owners failed to comply, the Islamists gutted the stores and often killed the owners. An example is liquor merchant Bashir Toma Alias, who was shot in the head in the center of a bazaar in Basra while on his way home to celebrate Christmas. [10]

Writing about the "deplorable attack against Chaldean Christians in Iraq," the Chaldean New Agency wrote on October 7, 2004:

"Not only did those heinous crimes result in the loss of innocent lives, but worse, they have created tremendous hardships for those Chaldean families whose very livelihood were attacked. With a lack of alternative jobs, many of them are currently living off the charitable contributions of the local Chaldean churches." [11]

The report goes on to warn that unless these "Islamic terrorists" are brought to justice, "Iraqi Chaldeans will continue to be an easy target for such criminals who are bent on imposing their distorted version of Islam by force." [12] It was reported that in the southern city of Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, armed Shi'ite groups with names such as "The Revenge of Allah," "Hizbullah," and "The Organization of Islamic Doctrines," roam the streets to mete out "Islamic punishment" on traders and users of alcohol, as well as on prostitutes. Four hundred Christian stores were closed. According to Faysal Abdullah, the head of the Organization of Islamic Doctrines, Islam "rewards those who seek martyrdom and who were designated by Allah to uproot vice." [13]

Often the police stand idly by in the face of crimes committed in their presence because they are afraid of the armed Islamists or because they sympathize with their aims.

The Christians complain that after they were driven out of the liquor business by Islamist groups, Muslims have taken over the business and continue to sell liquor publicly. [14]

The Islamists have also targeted barber shops run by Christians because the Islamists object to haircuts and to shaving. [15]

Harassment of Students

Christian students at Iraqi universities are also subjected to harassment and often to violence. At the University of Mosul, the second largest university in Iraq, 1,500 Christian students recently decided to suspend their studies because of threats to their lives by Islamists who have taken control of the university. [16] Because many of these students traveled to campus in buses from outside the city, they were afraid that their transportation would be bombed if they persisted in attending the university. [17]

A survey among Christian students carried out by the Iraqi daily Al-Mada has found similar sentiments among Christian students attending other institutions of higher learning in Iraq. They do not understand why they are being victimized. Anna Mirfit Boutrus, a 22-year-old student at the Technological University of Baghdad, expressed her distress:

"Why do the terrorists want to prevent us from performing our religious rites? Why do they bomb our churches? Why do they want to kill us

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