War tensions tough on Christians in Iraq

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Posted by Jeff from bgp01107368bgs.wbrmfd01.mi.comcast.net ( on Thursday, February 21, 2002 at 5:38AM :

War tensions tough on Christians in Iraq
Exodus tilting secular state toward Islam

Hadani Ditmars, Chronicle Foreign Service Wednesday, February 20, 2002

Baghdad, Iraq -- At St. Teresa's Church, a woman kneels to pray. Making the sign of the cross, she offers up silent benedictions as the priest leads a prayer for the peace and prosperity of his congregation, their country and their president, Saddam Hussein.

Although its interior -- with candles, icons and crucifixes -- would be familiar anywhere in the Catholic world, St. Teresa's is in central Baghdad, where the power of God should never try to rival that of the president.

Iraq is a land steeped in biblical history. It was the birthplace of Abraham, claimed to be the site of the Garden of Eden, and a place where apostles such as St. Thomas sojourned en route between Jerusalem and India.

Iraq's 800,000-strong Chaldean Christian community enjoys a relatively important place in a mainly Muslim society, exemplified by prominent figures such as Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz. There are also another 200,000 Christians -- Roman Catholics and members of eastern churches. All are afforded government protection as religious minorities.

But since the international embargo against Iraq began more than a decade ago, Iraqi Christians -- who can trace their roots back to Babylonian times -- have been slowly disappearing.

The largest Chaldean community outside of Iraq is now in Detroit, and many Christians are using family connections to emigrate in search of a brighter economic future than the one offered in embargoed Iraq.

Some observers express concern that the exodus is helping create an increasingly Islamicized culture in what has long been a secular society.

As rural migrants from Iraq's predominantly Muslim south flood such major cities as Baghdad and Basra, urban cosmopolitanism is gradually giving way to a more fundamentalist outlook.

In Baghdad, more and more women don't leave home without donning chadors -- a combination head covering, veil and shawl -- and streets in many neighborhoods are empty of women after sunset.

Since Sept. 11, the role of Christians in Iraqi society has been put into even sharper relief. With President Bush's "with us or against us" rhetoric and threats of U.S. military attack emphasizing the boundaries -- usually benign -- between Iraqi Christians and Muslims, it is not an easy time to be a Christian in this country.

The state-appointed Chaldean patriarch, Raphael Bidawid, said that although Iraqi Christians strongly identified themselves as "Iraqis first and then as Christians . . . we are sometimes accused of being agents of the West."

"But when the bombs fall," he noted dryly, "they are not especially for Christians or for Muslims. They're for everyone."

Bidawid's flock feels abandoned by the "Christian" nations that they believe are persecuting Iraq, he said.

"No country in the Western world can call themselves Christian," he said. "They do not act according to the Christian principles of peace and justice."

Without addressing issues of moral relativity, he added: "Those who point the finger at Iraq should not forget Hiroshima and Vietnam. They should not forget that they are starving a whole generation of children here."

From Detroit, Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, the top Chaldean Catholic religious figure in the United States, said: "It's very hard to see a bright future for Christianity in the Middle East.

"On the one hand, there is the rise in Islamic fundamentalism; on the other there is the U.S. position on Israel, which causes many Christians to be blamed as co-conspirators with the West. Both issues have a real impact on Christian populations in the whole area. We are really caught in the middle."

Ibrahim says there are now 250,000 Iraqi Christians in the United States, about 150,000 of them Chaldeans.

"We must follow the faithful, and that's why I'm here in Detroit," he said.

Despite their growing isolation, the Iraqi Christians do not stand alone.

Though the visit of a delegation of U.S. Episcopal bishops around Sept. 11 was postponed indefinitely, Archbishop Djibrael Kassab of Basra spent Christmas Day with some Christian anti-sanctions advocates who came from the United States to express their solidarity with Iraqis.

"The fact that they spent Christmas with us means they have not forgotten us," he said. "There are some who care about what's going on here.

"We love our enemies. During Mass on Christmas Day I delivered a special message to Mr. Bush, saying that we are both men of faith and that we are praying for our leader and for him. We are praying that he will come to know that sanctions come from a place that is evil."

There are only about 1,000 Christian families left in Basra, down from three times that before the Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, but Kassab says they get along well as a minority.

"We are living here like brothers with Muslims," he said, adding that at least 70 percent of the people who benefit from his parish's free pharmacy, day care center and home for the elderly are Muslim.

The Christian community in Basra is actually quite well off, a nugget revealed by the archbishop's guileless comment that "Iraq is an egalitarian society. My houseboy and I both receive the same amount of rations."

Besides benefiting from "cousin aid" from the outside, the community also prospers in the liquor business, something reserved only for Christians in Iraq. It is not uncommon to hear stories about Christians who literally help keep their Muslim neighbors alive by providing financial assistance.

At St. Teresa's in Baghdad, a group of women stopped to chat after Mass. In the presence of a government "minder," they answered a question about Christian emigration with an emphatic denunciation of "those who abandon their country."

"I would never leave," said 25-year-old Rana, an attractive young woman dressed fashionably in a faux-Chanel suit. "I love my country. And besides, those people in the West are not friendly; they don't like us." (Pope John Paul II, whose supportive anti-sanctions stance is much appreciated by Iraqi Christians, is excepted.)

But later on Rana confided, "Even if I wanted to leave, where would I get the money? How would I get the visa?"

And eventually she asked in a more curious tone, "How would I get the visa?"

When the group was asked whether they had any concerns about the growing Islamicization of society and the increase in women wearing the hijab, or veil,

53-year-old Amira said, "Well, it says in the Bible that women should dress modestly. It's the same thing."

As for the United States, Amira said, "Those people who embargo our country are not true Christians. They do not love peace and justice."

"I want to tell the Americans that Christ came for peace, not for war," she said.

Canadian journalist Hadani Ditmars recently returned from a monthlong reporting trip to Iraq.

-- Jeff
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