Iraqi Christians Fear Heightened Persecution

Mar 20, 2003 01:50 PM EST

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Fear looms within the small Christian community of Iraq, not of the attacks from American missiles, but of the growing tide of Islamic militancy within the State. In recent months, the Iraqi Christian Community, numbering less than 400,000 has been the target of overt discrimination by Islamist elements. Now with the onslaught of the war, the Christians fear a full-fledged attack.

Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, shrunk from 10 percent of population in 1980 to about 1.5 percent in 2000. The majority of the Iraqi Christians are Catholic or Orthodox, with several dozen evangelical congregations located mostly in larger areas.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein slowly merged Islam with the Iraqi government, and began to encourage devotion to Islam by emblazoning the Muslim slogan “God id Great” on the State’s flag. Claiming descent from the family of the prophet Muhammad, Hussein launched a “faith campaign” to promote the revival of Islam.

Local church leaders have recently reported that the Friday prayer sermons in Baghdad’s mosques have been doused in anti-Christian rhetoric.

According to a persecution watchdog group, Abu Bakr al-Sammerai declared, "Muhammad said fight the infidels with everything you have," during his sermon at the Abdel Qadr al-Gaylani mosque on March 7.

Other Muslim preachers have urged their listeners to "fight the followers of the devil," openly labeling Christians (known locally as "Nazarenes") as "infidels." It is also reported that Iraq's leading Muslim scholars issued a religious edict declaring that anyone who aided the U.S. and British forces would be "condemned to hell."

The bishop of the largest Christian denomination, the Chaldean Catholic Church, lodged an official objection with Iraq’s Ministry of Religious Affairs over the threat against the local Christian community.

"You have some mullahs denouncing the Crusaders and the infidels from the minaret, meaning us, as the Christians here," Chaldean Bishop Shlemon Warduni protested. "The fanatics in Iraq are using it as an excuse to act against the Christians."

A Chaldean Catholic nun was reportedly murdered by a “new breed of Iraqi Islamists” in an “Algerian style Islamist killing,” in her convent, Aug 15; the medical examiner says the 70 year old nun was cruelly tortured for five hours before her through was slit. Fellow nuns of the sister think, “It was a hate crime against Christians."

In the northern city of Mosul local Christians also have reported growing harassment of their clergy and church communities. Some 15 Christians were wounded in September when Islamist zealots stoned them coming out of church. Bishops and leading Christian families in the northern city have received letters telling them to convert to Islam, sometimes with accompanying threats, other times offering them cash rewards.

In mid-February, a Kurdish Christian was publicly assassinated in northern Iraq by a fanatical Muslim who claimed he was "fulfilling the will of Allah" by killing an apostate from Islam. The police chief of Zakho has declared he will demand the death penalty against the arrested murderer of Ziwar Mohammed Ismaeel, who is survived by his widow and five children.

The escalating violence has wrought fear among the Christian believers, who believe the violence roots not from their religion, but from their ties to the western world.

"This is not just because of our evangelical activities," said a leading evangelical clergyman, "but also because of our relationship and support from American and British friends."

"We have hidden all our equipment, Bibles, books, computers, emptying our offices of everything of value," he said, in case they needed to flee rapidly. He mentioned that many Christians in northern Iraq's cities are preparing to leave their houses, renting a room or finding other lodging for their families in undisclosed locations in the surrounding villages. Although local believers continue to meet for fellowship in small groups and the schools remain open, they have developed contingency plans to avoid attacks by strangers and post-war looting.

"In the event of an aggression by the West," said a local Father, Youssef Tuma, "we pray the other party does not take it out on us or look at Christians of the East as the cause.

"Prayers are all we have left.”

By Pauline J.