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Iraq’s tiny Christian communities brace for heightened persecution

ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP)–Hours before a U.S.-led war to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein appears poised to begin, Iraq’s small Christian minority fears more than American bombs, Compass Direct news service reported March 19.

Iraqi Christians expect to be targeted by a growing tide of Islamic militancy now being encouraged in the secularized Arab state, according to Compass, a news service focusing on persecuted Christians and based in Santa Ana, Calif.

Numbering less than 400,000, Iraq’s Christian community has in recent months become the object of overt discrimination by Islamist elements, Compass reported. The attacks have ranged from verbal abuse and graffiti campaigns to stone-throwing and even brutal assassinations.

Iraq’s Christian community, one of the oldest in the world, has shrunk from 10 percent of the population 20 years ago to about 1.5 percent of the country’s 24 million people. The majority of the Christians are Catholic or Orthodox, with several dozen evangelical congregations located mostly in larger urban areas.

Although Saddam Hussein initially kept religion out of Iraq’s political life, he began to encourage devotion to Islam after the 1991 Gulf War, emblazoning the Muslim slogan “God is great” on the Iraq flag and claiming descent from the family of the prophet Muhammad, Compass recounted. Four years ago he launched a “faith campaign” to promote a revival of Islam, building scores of new mosques and religious schools across the country.

Over the past few weeks, local church leaders report that anti-Christian rhetoric has dominated Friday prayer sermons in Baghdad’s mosques. “Muhammad said fight the infidels with everything you have,” Abu Bakr al-Sammerai declared at the Abdel Qadr al-Gaylani mosque on March 7, according to Compass.

Ignoring the government’s previous rules on religious tolerance, other Muslim preachers have urged their listeners to “fight the followers of the devil,” openly labeling Christians (known locally as “Nazarenes”) as “infidels,” Compass reported. On March 13, 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.”

In mid-March a bishop of the largest Christian denomination, the Chaldean Catholic Church, told a New York Times reporter that he had 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.”

Dominated by zealots linked to Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi Islamic sect, the new breed of Iraqi Islamists have been blamed for a number of incidents and threats of violence across Iraq in the past year.

A Chaldean Catholic nun murdered on Aug. 15 in her convent in central Baghdad had been executed in what local church sources had described as “an Algerian-style Islamist killing,” Compass reported. According to the medical examiner, the 70-year-old nun had been stripped naked and cruelly tortured for five hours before her throat was cut and she was beheaded.

Fellow nuns of Sister Cecilia Musha Hanna “think it was a hate crime against Christians,” according to a Newsweek report on Oct. 28. When Wahhabi Muslims built a mosque in 1998 directly across the street from the Order of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, the nuns said, graffiti against the nuns started to appear on nearby walls, followed by rock-throwing and other difficulties.

In the northern city of Mosul, known now as a Wahhabi stronghold, 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.

Local nuns have been subjected to such abuse that some have stopped wearing their habits, according to Compass, and many report that strangers on the street have ordered them to remove their crosses.

From the Kurdish-controlled enclave of northern Iraq, a leading evangelical clergyman told Compass that he and his church members expect potential attacks from both Islamic militants as well as from secular anti-Western elements.

“This is not just because of our evangelical activities,” the church leader said, “but also because of our relationship and support from American and British friends.”

Just two days earlier, the pastor said, he had prepared his church members to be ready to leave their homes, shops and church buildings within a half-hour’s notice. “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.

In addition, he said, 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 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.

“In the event of an aggression by the West,” Father Youssef Tuma told Reuters news agency, “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,” the Iraqi priest said.
Used by permission.

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