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Iraqi Christians Flee Baghdad
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BAGHDAD -- Christians are fleeing in droves from the southern Baghdad district of Dora after Sunni insurgents told them they would be killed unless they converted to Islam or left, according to Christian leaders and families who fled.

Similar episodes of what has become known as sectarian cleansing raged through Baghdad neighborhoods last year as Sunnis drove Shiites from Sunni areas and Shiites drove Sunnis from Shiite ones, but this marks the first apparent attempt to empty an entire Baghdad neighborhood of Christians, the Christians say.

The exodus began three weeks ago after a fatwa, or religious edict, was issued by Sunni insurgents offering Christians a stark choice: to convert to Islam and pay an ancient Islamic tax known as "jizyah," or to depart within 24 hours and leave their property behind. If they did neither, they said, they faced death.

Sunni gunmen have been enforcing the edict with a dozen or so kidnappings, a shooting, by knocking on doors and by posting leaflets on walls--actions that have prompted hundreds of Christians to leave an area that was once home to one of Baghdad's largest Christian communities.

The insurgents' campaign in Dora is the first major incident of sectarian cleansing since the Baghdad security plan, a centerpiece of President Bush's strategy to win in Iraq, went into effect in mid-February and extra U.S. troops began arriving in Baghdad in an effort to retake the city from insurgents and militias.

"They are talking about security plans and bringing peace, but nothing arrived in Dora. There are no rules, no government and no government forces," said Bishop Shlimon Warduni, auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Patriarchate, the ancient Christian sect to which most of the Christians in the Dora area belong. "This is a full-scale persecution. In all of Iraq's history we didn't face a situation like this."

About 150 fleeing families have reported to churches elsewhere in Baghdad, seeking help in finding alternative accommodations, he said. Many others with resources or relatives in safer areas have left Dora without informing church leaders, said Yonadem Kanna, a Christian member of parliament representing the Assyrian Democratic Party. Kanna estimates that 300 families have been driven out of Dora in the past three weeks.

Iraq's minority Christian community, put at 800,000 on the eve of the U.S. invasion, has already been decimated by threats, fear and intimidation over the past four years, and as many as half of Iraq's Christians are now living outside the country, according to the latest report of the U.S. International Commission on Religious Freedom issued last week.

Church leaders estimate that half of Dora's Christian community has already fled the notoriously violent Sunni extremist stronghold in southwestern Baghdad, a community of 500,000 in which Sunnis, Shiites and Christians once lived alongside one another. Shiites have already been expelled from all but the southernmost edge of the neighborhood. Although Christians had been individually targeted, usually for ransom, as a community they had largely been ignored, residents say.

Among those who fled is Ayleen Georges, 40, whose husband was kidnapped in early April by Sunni insurgents. They later apologized, told him they had abducted the wrong man, and let him go. Ten days later, after the edict appeared, they kidnapped him again.

He is too shaken to talk about being abducted, but she described how the gunmen repeatedly told him he would be killed unless he converted to Islam or left his home within 24 hours.

"They said to him, 'Why haven't you become a Muslim?' He told them, 'We have faith in the Virgin Mary.' And then they cursed the Virgin Mary," she said, breaking down in tears. "They told him to leave within 24 hours and they said we had to leave all our property and possessions behind, or we would be killed."

About a dozen similar kidnappings have taken place, scattered across the Dora area, with the apparent intention of terrorizing Christians into leaving, said Christian lawmaker Abdul Ahad Afram, of the Assyrian Democratic Party.

Though there was a similar drive to eject Christians from the northern city of Mosul last year, this is the first systematic drive against Christians in Baghdad, he said.

"In Dora we're seeing an organized operation to kick out all the Christians and seize their property," he said.

The instruction to leave behind all property and possessions was emphasized by the insurgents in the area, and those who fled say they did not dare take so much as a suitcase.

Sanharib Benuel, 23, left his home with his mother and brother last week after fliers spelling out the threat were posted on the walls around his neighborhood. He hoped to trick the Sunni insurgents by packing his suitcases, leaving a Sunni neighbor in his house, and then arranging for another neighbor to transport the suitcases to a relative's home the following day.

But within hours, he said, gunmen came to the house and ordered the neighbor to leave, telling him: "This is a Christian house, and it has been confiscated." They then ransacked the house and stole its contents, said Benuel, who is now living in a church in another Baghdad neighborhood and is working at the church as a guard.

Abdullah al-Noufali, head of the Christian Endowment, a state body that oversees Iraq's churches, said he had heard of many instances in which local Sunni residents had offered to help or protect their threatened Christian neighbors. He blames outsiders--the Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents who have converged on Dora over the past three years, turning it into one of Baghdad's most notorious and violent extremist strongholds.

"The problem isn't religious, it's economic. The Christians are soft targets. They don't react with violence. They will pay or leave," al-Noufali said. "Families are leaving every day, and by this summer, there won't be one Christian left in Dora."

According to Kanna, the pressure on Christians in Dora has intensified since the arrival in recent months of a fresh influx of Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents squeezed out of their stronghold in western Anbar province by a U.S.-backed tribal alliance. Gunmen began visiting churches in the area and ordered them to take down the cross, and since then, all the area's clergymen have fled, and the district's nine churches have closed.

Though U.S. forces have increased their presence in the area since the Baghdad security plan went into effect, they appear oblivious to this latest persecution of Christians, said Ahmed al-Mukhtar, 29, a salesman who joined the exodus after gunmen opened fire on three of his neighbors as they drove to work together in late April, prompting all the Christian families he knows in the immediate vicinity to flee.

"They don't know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys," he said. "When the Americans patrol, people rush to open their shops and to go shopping, and when they leave, everyone rushes home. The gunmen are free to do anything, to kill anyone to force anyone to leave."

A U.S. military spokesman did not respond to a query about the Christian exodus from Dora, but U.S. officials have pointed to the success of the Baghdad security plan in bringing about a sharp reduction in the level of Sunni-Shiite sectarian violence in recent weeks.

By Liz Sly
Chicago Tribune

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