“Iraqis from all sections of the Iraqi society have been approaching our office,” said Ajmal Khybari, senior officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Damascus. “But in the past two or three months we have seen an increase of Iraqi Christians.”
After the bombing of five Christian churches in Baghdad and Mosul earlier this month, Iraqi Christians are reportedly immigrating to neighboring countries such as Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Although the attack was the first major assault on Iraq’s Christian minority since Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in April 2003, even before the church bombings, Christians reporting harassment by Islamic fundamentalists had been streaming out of Iraq. According to sources, attacks on Iraq’s Christian minority have been steadily increasing since late spring.
As a result, thousands of Iraqis, Muslim as well as Christian, have sought to escape the chaos at home to neighboring Syria. A disproportionate number of refugees, though, have been Christian.
The Iraqi Embassy in Damascus and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate the number of Iraqi of all faiths in Syria at about 250,000. And although they represent less than five percent of Iraq’s population, Iraqi Christians are estimated to make up about 20 percent of the total refugee flow into Syria from Iraq.
Rita Zekert, coordinator of the Caritas Migrant Center, a Catholic charity in Damascus that provides food, medicine and other aid to refugees, said last year’s wartime influx of Iraqi refugees included Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Kurds in percentages roughly proportionate to their numbers in Iraq.
“But nowadays, 95 percent of the people coming to us are Iraqi Christians.”
According to Emanuel Khoshaba, hundred of Iraqi Christian families move to Syria and Jordan every day. Khoshaba, a representative of the Iraqi Assyrian Democratic Movement in Syria, told Inter Press Service that there are now 10,000 Iraqi Christians in Syria, 90-percent of which arrived after the Iraqi war began in March of last year.
Though Iraqi Christians are heading to Jordan and Lebanon as well Syria is the preferred destination, for its low cost of living, cultureal similarities with Iraq and policy of freely issuing visas to citizens of other Arab countries.
But most of Syria’s newest Iraqi Christian refugees say the decision to leave their homeland was anything but easy. But because of the increasing terror present in their country many have felt that they’ve had no choice.
Benjamin Chamoun, who had worked as a driver at a U.S. military base, showed Associated Press a handwritten death threat signed the “Islamic Resistance Group.” Although, Chamoun quit his job after receiving the note, he didn’t consider leaving his homeland. Then came the church bombings.
“There is nothing worse than attacking churches,” said Chamoun, who is a member of the Chaldean-Assyrian church, the major Christian sect in Iraq.
“We, as Christians, are not persecuted by Muslims. Our problem is with Muslim extremists,” he added.
Chamoun, who fled with his wife, two daughters and son, hopes to emigrate to Australia. If he doesn’t get a visa, he said he would try to find a job in Syria and wait for the situation to improve back home.
Solaka Enweya, 56, an Assyrian Christian who arrived in Syria with his three sons on June 27, told the New York Times that his family had been receiving vague death threats since the start of the war in March 2003. But beginning in April, a group of local Islamist extremists began directly threatening his sons because of their faith.
Then, he says, they blew up his van. “Our only choice was to come to Syria, Enweya said.
Abdulkhaleck Sharif Nuaman, who recently fled Iraq for Syria, said that two months ago he had high hopes for the country’s democratic future. But then, Islamic extremists began attacking Christians in his Baghdad neighborhood. His nine-year-old son was kidnapped, dragged into a moving car as the boy played near his home.
After relatives scraped together $5,000 (USD) to ransom the boy, the family drove across the desert into Syria to apply for refugee status.
“We are safe here, and so we feel free,” Nuaman said from his new home in Damascus. “The Syrians are brothers to us. There is no discrimination here. That is the truth, and not a compliment.”
According to recent statistics, Christians make up 10% of the Syrian population, while Sunni Muslims make up 74%, and Alawite, Druze and other Muslim sects 16%. Overall the Christian minority is respected and there is freedom to worship, but any activity that could threaten the government or communal harmony is suspect, making it difficult to spread the Gospel. Due to emigration to the Americas and Africa, the Christian population had been decreasing.