Potentially Grave Disruption of Relations between Christians and Muslims in Iraq

Dec 05, 2002 01:26 PM EST

Christians in Iraq are expressing fears that a war would seriously alter what have been peaceful relations between them and the Muslims.

Muslim fanaticism increased in the years following the Gulf War in 1991, Christians said, but this did not have a major impact on Christian communities. "We have had no religious problems until now," said one man. "There has never been any harassment of us as Christians."

Although Christians downplay fears about their relations with Muslims, freedom of speech and movement in Iraq cannot be taken for granted and all evangelical work is forbidden. Yet most Christians said that, despite the threat of war, they didn't see problems in their immediate neighborhoods where everyone knows everyone else.

Yet some Christians said that they felt some vulnerability as a minority and reported that some of their children had been asked by Muslim students to convert to Islam. They also remember that, during the Gulf War, Christians were accused by Muslims of being allies of the United States.

In the southern part of the country, which lies in the "no fly" zone established by the United Nations, both Christians and Muslims are feeling pressure, much of it attributed to bombings by American and British aircraft. In a once-prosperous city like Basra, the city was still suffering from heavy destruction during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-86 when it faced a new round of destruction during the Gulf War. Now jobs are virtually non-existent for most people. Mothers and children are often seen begging on the streets and drinking water is scarce, according to recent visitors.

"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."