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Emigration the Norm for Iraqi Christians

Iraq's Christian migrants are facing a number of difficulties in adapting to their new environments abroad. As many of them continue to emigrate, some observers say the country may soon be empty of Christians altogether. To explore the implications for the migrants and for Iraq, Niqash interviewed Father Youssef Tuma, Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Christian Thought, and founder of Baghdad Open University for Humanities.

Father Tuma is one of the most prominent Dominican fathers in Iraq. He has translated dozens of books from the Syriac, English and French into Arabic but he also has excellent knowledge of German, Greek and Spanish. Niqash met with Father Tuma to discuss the challenges facing Iraqi migrants, an area he has direct experience of thanks to his annual visits to the Europe and the US.

Niqash: How would you describe the condition of Iraqi Christians in the forty-plus countries you have visited?

Father Tuma: Migration has certainly had an impact on Iraqi Christians. They become nostalgic and they miss the old days in Iraq. They are also becoming more religious as they try to hold onto their roots. Christians who never went to church before are looking for churches in the countries where they now live.

What is more, Christians are suffering the physical as well the psychological impact of migration -- what are usually referred to as psychosomatic disorders. For example, Christians who emigrated to Australia and New Zealand celebrate Christmas in the summer. But when they were in Iraq, Christmas for them was a winter occasion which they celebrated with hearty winter food and a fire.

There are also personal decisions to consider. Iraqi Christian émigrés are increasingly asking whether their own decisions, such as marriage and migration, were right or wrong. They are at a crossroads, so such questions are only natural.

Niqash: What are the sources of social and family problems faced by Iraqis living outside Iraq?

Father Tuma: I have noticed that the problems faced by immigrants derive in large measure from the calmer environment they live in after all the pressures and anxiety they had suffered back at home. The tense physical state they experienced in Iraq increases the amount of adrenaline in the body and provides people with strong stimulation for mind and body alike. However, the absence of pressure and anxiety reduces the amount of adrenaline in the body and this leads to problems which here we might consider minor issues, problems like people mistreating their wives and children. It spoils the relationship between parents and their sons and can lead to legal problems, and ultimately to the imprisonment of the parents.

Niqash: How do you assess the current crises of Christians and the impact of migration?

Father Tuma: Iraq is the land of war and migration. Abraham left Ur and settled in Palestine. The Iraqi Christians have been migrating since World War I. In 1980, 1991 and 2003, Iraqi Christians started to migrate and became familiar with migration. They have also become more powerful in the host countries. In fact, there was an implicit agreement to allow Iraqi Christians to leave the country. Migration should be the exception rather than the rule. But each family member convinces his family to migrate without informing them of the problems they might suffer outside their own countries. Only then do the problems start to surface.

Niqash: The majority in Iraq consider Christians as a minority, how is this perceived by Christian Iraqis?

Father Tuma: Iraq is country rich in Islamic, Arabic and other cultures. Today very few of these are left. But numbers shouldn't be the criteria for making judgments. It is important to assess and evaluate more broadly. To ignore a part of our heritages is an insult to all, even to Islam, which is very rich in heritage. Marginalization was a method used against us in the past by the majority. But now, this has changed. I ask now the majority not to crush us who are in minorities!

Niqash: Do you think that there is a stereotype image of the Christians in Iraq?

Father Tuma: Tell me what you think and I will tell you who you are. What I see in others is not objective. It is my personal perception. Stereotyping needs to be analyzed. Everybody has his own perceptions of things. Nowadays, it is very difficult for Christian Iraqis to be what they want to be. If we define Iraq as merely oil and water, we are underestimating the country. Iraq has other important forms of wealth and should be heavily invested in so that the future can be rich in every way.

Christians are part of Iraq's wealth and they should be treated as such. Some things are difficult to retrieve once they are lost.

Niqash: Do you think that Iraqi school books are fair when it comes to discussing issues of Christians in Iraq?

Father Tuma: Christianity is the creed of one of the oldest faith communities in this country who have enjoyed a continuous history here right up until the present day. For example, Muslims in Iraq have their own Hijri calendar starting in the year 622, but add Christians six centuries to it. The proof of this is the Kokhi Church in Salman Bak which dates back to the year 79. Judaism in Iraq has an even longer history and these people carry their heritage with them too. Christians stand in the middle historically, between Judaism and Islam. I regret how Islamic historians treat the past since they talk as though history here started in 636, when Islam arrived, and not before. Yet there have been times when the different groups lived in peace, especially during the Abbasids, which is seen as the golden time for Baghdad as a capital city.

Niqash: Do you think that Christian political representation in Iraq is sufficient? Does this representation reflect the real size of the community and does it allow their demands to be responded to?

Father Tuma: From a social perspective, Iraq is undergoing a series of developments and their results cannot be measured in days and years. People's political representation risks being undermined by the fight over political power, by the lack of clear criteria for political representation and by quotas. (For example, if you are born in a certain area and are from a certain religious group, then you are a part of the area and the group regardless of your education and background). We will need lots of time to overcome sectarian and ethnic divides in order to have people to represent us properly, people who are wise and who are capable of acting as our mouthpieces.

By Sa'ad Salloum

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