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Forgotten Victims: Iraqi Christians Who Speak the Language of Jesus

In recent months the level of violence in Iraq has increased with almost daily reports of bombings. Caught in the midst of the chaos are a small minority, the Christian Iraqis.

In the first century AD, long before Islam spread in the seventh century, St Thomas the Apostle brought Christianity to the Chaldeans and the Assyrians of Mesopatamia. The Assyrians are to Iraq what the American Indians are to America.

The Assyrians and Chaldeans are some of the few remaining peoples who speak and worship in the original Aramaic language of Jesus Christ. They are the oldest continuous churches in the history of Christianity.

Prior to the 2003 invasion, the Christians of Iraq comprised approximately 3% of the larger population, and under the regime of Saddam Hussein they enjoyed relative religious freedom.

The Christian minority were traditionally respected for their education and entrepreneurial business skills.

I lived in Iraq during 2000-'01 and toured the country as part of my duties as a UN official.

I had the pleasure on several occasions of meeting the late Margaret Hassan, who at the time was the director of the NGO, Care. Margaret worked assiduously to have the UN sanctions lifted and was a great friend to the Iraqi people. Her life and work epitomised Iraqi society where Muslim and Christian lived side by side.

The church where I worshipped in Baghdad was bombed in 2003 and the hospital across the road run by Iraqi nuns was destroyed.

Since June last year, when the interim government took office, Christians have been leaving Iraq in their thousands. Christians living in cities have been targeted by gangs of fundamentalist thugs operating a policy of 'ethnic cleansing' under the eye of the occupation forces. Their homes have been burned, businesses looted, and the women and children subjected to intimidation, murder and rape.

In the northern city of Mosul (near the biblical city of Nineveh, where there is a shrine to Jonah), thousands of Christians have been forced out of their homes and their businesses looted.

In short, what is happening is a modern-day holocaust which is deliberately being under-reported in the interests of political agendas and the oxymoron known as the 'war on terror' while the world looks the other way.

In the words of one Iraqi Christian, the US and Britain have succeeded in replacing the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein with the dictatorship of Islam and paved the way for a possible civil war. They have succeeded in ridding Iraq of the very people who could help rebuild the country and have instead turned it over to fundamentalists. Over the past few months I have received several emails from former Iraqi colleagues, several of whom have emigrated to Jordan, Syria, the US and various countries in Europe seeking asylum. Christians fear for their safety and are quietly making arrangements to leave.

To leave Iraq, they must first apply for an exit permit which is issued only on the production of a baptismal certificate.

Those who cannot leave Iraq are forced to pay protection money.

What we are now witnessing, under the smokescreen known as 'the spread of democracy,' is not the establishment of democracy, but the birth of a new republic of anarchy that denies basic freedoms and equality to minorities.

The exodus from cities such as Baghdad and Babylon is another Dharfur, a silent holocaust outside the glitzy world of regular news reporting.

Living under fundamentalism is not fun. Readers will recall the situation in the mid 1990s in Yugoslavia when the world acted to defend the rights of Muslim minorities in that country.

The tables have now turned, yet no one speaks for the Iraqi Christians. It is time for people of goodwill everywhere to recognise what is really happening.

Silence is consent, and consent can quickly become licence.

As Christian people we must be held accountable ultimately for what is happening to our brothers in Iraq, the birthplace of Abraham (patriarch of the three great monotheistic world religions) and site of the Garden of Eden. If this were the Middle Ages, a crusade would be launched from Europe.

The sacrifice of an ancient Christian way of life in Iraq is an extremely large price to pay for democracy and cheaper world oil prices. You may not appreciate the significance of the UN's recent objection to the new Iraqi constitution in which Article 7 enshrines Islam as the "official religion of the state".

The UN was a single voice crying in the wilderness, a voice of hope and reason, a voice which recognises the territorial integrity of an ancient land, its culture and history, and a voice standing up for the rights of the minorities. In advocating caution, the UN was doing its duty to defend the true principles of democracy and human rights.

It is time for the US and Britain to leave Iraq and let the UN help the Iraqi people rebuild their country, just as they are doing in Afghanistan and Liberia.

It is time for Iraqi Christians forced into exile to return to their ancient homeland and help rebuild their country.

By Colm Mealy
Irish Examiner


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