Christians in Iraq Live in Fear or Flee

Nabil Comanny and his family endured the dead bodies left to decompose along the road in their southern Dora neighborhood. They accepted the criminal gangs that roamed the area, searching for targets to kidnap. And neither the utility failures nor the mountains of trash in the street could drive them away.

As Christians, the Comannys had learned to keep a low profile. They even stayed in their house after many Muslim neighbors fled the daily chaos when sectarian bloodshed between Shiite and Sunni militants broke out in 2006, making this one of Baghdad's most embattled districts.

But the hand-scrawled note at their door was the final straw. The message commanded the family to select one of these options:

Convert to Islam.

Pay a fee of nearly $300 monthly for "protection."

Leave the area.

Failure to comply would result in death.

"We don't have weapons, and the government doesn't protect us. What else can we do?" said Comanny, a 37-year-old journalist whose family abandoned its modest home of 11 years.

Extreme Islamic militants increasingly are targeting Christians in Iraq, especially in the capital. As a result, Iraq's Christian community-long the minority in a largely Muslim country-continues to dwindle. While meaningful numbers are difficult to come by, the last Iraqi census, conducted in 1987, counted 1 million Christians, although many fled after the United Nations imposed sanctions in the 1990s. Today, national aid groups estimate that between 300,000 and 600,000 Christians remain among an estimated 25 million people.

Comanny said the first sign of trouble for his family arrived last spring when Muslim militants imposed Islamic law over the area. The proclamation came via an 18-point document posted along shops and blast walls. The decree listed stringent rules for all residents. Among other things, women were to wear burqas, which are draped over the head, covering the face and entire body. "It's not our tradition," Comanny said. "How can Christian women be expected to do this?"

In the end, most Christian families decided to pay a bribe, Comanny said, "because it gave them time to prepare to leave. But most can't afford to keep paying."

Today, the Comannys live in the New Baghdad section of the capital, where hundreds of Christian families relocated. The families move cautiously among a
majority Shiite population that relies on the Mahdi army to protect the area.

William Warda, founder of Hamorabi, a Christian-led national human rights group in Iraq, said most Christians here no longer feel safe embracing the lifestyle they once enjoyed. "Maybe they can stand this for a year or two, but not their whole lives."

Most Christians still in Iraq are Chaldean Catholics who acknowledge the pope's authority but remain autonomous of the Vatican. Other denominations include Syrian Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and Armenian Catholics. Small groups of Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholics also practice, as do Anglicans and Evangelicals.

The one thing most Christians agree on is their view of the future: bleak. Hamorabi's Warda predicts an exodus of Christians from Iraq if Western countries relax their immigration policies. "If the U.S. and Europe open their doors, the Christians in Iraq will be finished," Warda said. "They will all leave."

Washington Post via IRPP News Update

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