Christians Leaving Iraq Facing June 30 Deadline

( [email protected] ) Jun 09, 2004 06:16 PM EDT

Christians are getting their papers in order and preparing to leave Iraq en masse before the June 30 deadline for transfer of power.

The country's temporary constitution names Islam the "Official Religion of the State". Compounded by the community's failure for an appointment to any position on the Executive Council and getting only one ministry post, believers feel it is best to get out while they still can.

According to Voice of the Martyrs' Todd Nettleton, it's a severe disappointment. "The Americans came and were welcomed with open arms by the Christians there who anticipated a democratic government, they anticipated that the Christians would have representation in that government."

With so many leaving, the Christians are making their dissatisfaction known. "I think that's a pretty clear signal that they're not very confident of how they will be received, how they will be protected."

Nettleton describes the effect on future outreach as pronounced. "If you lose a lot of the population of your churches, you're losing some of the people who would be working, would be ministering, would be witnessing to the people around them. If you cut the numbers in half, or if you cut the numbers by 25-percent, that cuts the available people who can be involved in the ministry of that church."

Most of the Christians in Iraq are Assyrians -- those who claim to be the original inhabitants of Iraq. Because they are Christians and 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.

According to figures from the previous regime, there were 2.5 million Assyrian Christians in the country with an estimated 3.5 million outside the country for a worldwide total of as many as 6 million.

"We are having to take care of daily cases of harassment of Assyrians by Muslims," says one priest. "I just got back form helping one of our parishioners who was falsely accused by a neighbor and was about to be arrested. I had to go and sort it all out. ... Our women are accosted on the street and intimidated to start dressing according to Islamic tradition, our businesses are being burned, and the constant harassment is because of the attitude of appeasement toward Muslims."

According to Assyrian Christian News, the Iraqi Christian community is working on two projects -- one to establish a 24-hour nationwide hotline to provide security for daily acts of intimidation that is much of the cause for the panic among the Iraqi Christians. The other is a nationwide network of "safe houses" to take care of the community, when -- as they believe -- following the handover of sovereignty to Iraq, the country will descend into chaos and civil war.