Iraqi Christians Fear War will Create Tensions with Muslims

Nov 22, 2002 03:00 AM EST

Basra, Iraq -- Iraqi Christians fear that a war against Iraq will trigger religious tensions that they say presently don't exist between them and their Muslim compatriots. "We have had it good in Iraq," says one Christian describing the peaceful coexistence of the religious communities to a correspondent visiting Iraq's second biggest city, Basra in the south of the country. He expresses concern that a war could be deliberately turned into a religious conflict.

Fanaticism among Muslims increased in the years after the Gulf War in 1991, Christians say, but this had not affected the Christian communities in a major way. Another man tells the reporter: "We have had no religious problems till now. There has never been any harassment of us as Christians."

Yet some Christians fear a new conflict could end that peaceful coexistence between the religious communities, especially in the south of the country, where the majority of people are Shi'a Muslims - as are more than 60 per cent of all Iraqi's.

Although Christians downplay fears about their relations with Muslims, freedom of speech and movement in Iraq cannot be taken for granted. Evangelical work, for example, is forbidden.

Despite all the fear that there will be a US-led war against their country, Christians in Basra don't foresee any religious problems in their direct neighborhood, where everyone knows everyone else.

But they say they feel exposed as a minority and that their children are asked by Muslim students to convert to Islam. And they remember that in the 1991 war Christians were accused by Muslims of being allies of the United States.

In the south of the country daily pressure is already high for both Christians and Muslims. Residents rue that Basra has declined from a wealthy city in the seventies to one of the poorest in Iraq today. It lies in an area known as a "no-fly" zone set up by UN resolutions that are subjected to bombings carried out mainly by US and British aircraft.

Basra is an important oil center with a long history of prosperity that was disrupted by two wars in the last two decades. The city suffered heavy destruction from the Iran-Iraq War fought from 1980-1986 and then it faced a new round of devastation during the Gulf War.

UN sanctions were imposed because of Iraq's refusal to comply with 19 resolutions after the Gulf War, and they have taken their toll.

Jobs are virtually non-existent for many people, mothers and children are often seen begging on the streets, drinking water is very scarce and there is no electricity in many places.

"The churches already support some of these people, Christians and Muslims, with meager means at their disposal," said one Christian. "But if there is a war these people will be the most vulnerable."

By Rainer Lang