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Iraqi Christians Consider Fleeing as Violence Increases

( [email protected] ) Jul 13, 2004 08:01 PM EDT

As the tide of persecution continues to rise for Iraq's Christian minority, believers are faced with making the difficult decision of staying and risking their lives, or leaving and abandoning those left behind. According to the Christian Science Monitor, thousands are trying to flee for fear of an Islamic future in which they would be outcasts.

"It's like a huge amount of people lined up at the starting line, waiting for the gun to go off, and now it's going off," Iraqi-American Christian activist Rev. Ken Joseph told CS Monitor. "For them to leave is a very big step, but that shows how badly people want to get out."

It is difficult to estimate the number of fleeing believers, because "most Christian groups, desperately wanting Christians to stay, deny that there is any problem," reported CS Monitor.

Issaq Issaq, director of international relations for the Assyrian Democratic Movement, estimates that about 2,000 families have tried to leave since summer began. "They want to leave, because they heard they can get asylum in Australia," he says. "We are trying to keep these people in Iraq, because it is their country."

About a month ago, a rumor spread through Baghdad's Christian community, half-a-million strong, that Australia had agreed to give Christians political asylum. According to reports, frantic asylum-seekers flooded passport offices and churches trying to get copies of their baptismal certificates.

One believer, an Armenian Catholic who asked for his name not be published reported going to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office and seeing hundreds of Iraqis waiting in line--most of whom had slept there overnight, hoping to get in and register as refugees.

To reach the front of the line, "Salwan" camped out overnight on the pavement twice because each time, the office closed before he reached the head of the line. After reaching the head of the line Salwan received an official UNHCR document noting that he is an Armenian Catholic and giving him six months to apply for refugee status.

Now back in Baghdad, he said he loves Iraq, but he is hoping the UN will call him and tell him he can go to Australia "because of the situation, and because all my family is there, and because I cannot bear the life here anymore."

If Iraqi Christians do make an exodus from the country, as many believe will happen, it will continue the downward trend in the number of believers in Iraq since 1987.

In 1987, the Iraqi census showed the Christian population to be 1.4 million roughly. Then came Saddam Hussein's anfal ("spoils of war') campaign during which the army rampaged through Iraq's northern region, attacking ethnic Kurds, systematically destroying more than 100 small Christian villages, and razing scores of ancient monasteries and churches while deporting thousands of Christian families to Baghdad.

During the 1990s, a steady stream of Christians poured out of Iraq to Canada, Switzerland, Australia, the United States and wherever they could get asylum. Today, fewer than 1 million remain in Iraq, divided among Assyrians, Chaldean Catholics, Armenians, and Syriac Christians.

According to sources, Assyrians--those who claim to be the original inhabitants of Iraq--make up the majority of the Christians in Iraq. Because of their religion, and the fact that many speak English or have relatives abroad, there's also a widespread perception that Christians are pro-American. Seen as allies of the West, the Assyrians have long been subject to persecution. The Assyrian Church, known officially as the Assyrian Church of the East, is the oldest continually existing church in the world. Assyrians are the only people in the world who still speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ.

Today, Assyrians are asking for a protected province in the north, as well as money to fund a hotline and three safe houses for victims of anti-Christian crimes. "If we can get a zone in the north of Iraq, the rest of Iraq is going to go to hell, but we can be safe," said the Rev. Joseph. "Otherwise, Chicago and San Diego and Detroit had better get ready for another flood of Assyrian refugees."

Christians in the west are being urged to pray for a peaceful transition of power in the war-ravaged country that is still severely plagued by terrorist violence. Even though many believe Iraq is on its way to recovery, it still has a long road ahead. Meanwhile, Christians and ministry workers in Iraq are prayerfully watching and waiting to see what the future holds.

[Source: The Christian Science Monitor]