Iraq Christians 'in constant fear' want safe zones

Growing violence against Iraq's estimated 700,000 Christians could mean the creation of "green zone" style enclaves to protect against attacks by Muslim extremists.

Muslim extremists bombed five churches in Baghdad on 16 October in the second attack on the Christian community in the past three months.

No casualties were reported in the pre-dawn blasts, which struck churches across the capital over the course of an hour at the start of the holy month of Ramadan. But the attacks have been seen as a final straw by Iraq's Christian and have lead to calls for the creation of safe havens in Iraq to protect families from mounting hostility.
Many Iraqi Christians fear that they are being made to pay for hostility at the US-led invasion earlier this year.

The first bomb exploded at the church of Saint Joseph at about 4am local time and was followed by similar explosions outside four other churches. Flames engulfed the Roman Catholic church of St George in the central Baghdad district of Karrada.


“Muslims and Christians have been living here in harmony for hundreds of years,” said Fr Gabriel Shamami of St Joseph’s church. “I don’t think Iraqis would do this, especially during Ramadan.”

In August, similar bomb attacks against five churches in Baghdad killed 11 and injured more than 50.

Patriarch Emmanuel Delly III of Baghdad, the head of the country’s 700,000-strong Chaldean Church, said there was nothing the tiny minority could do against such strikes.

“If the government is powerless, what can we do?” he said. “We call on the attackers not to touch the holy sites.”

The Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq denounced the attacks against the churches, according to al-Jazeera, the Arabic television station.

But some Iraqi Christians remain convinced that the attacks are linked to recent statements made by Muhammad Bashar al-Fayyaadh, an imam who claims to speak on behalf of the Commission of Iraqi Ulemas.

Speaking recently on al-Jazeera, al-Fayyaadh accused Christians of failing to condemn American raids against some mosques in Ramadi in western Iraq.

Church sources in Mosul have meanwhile told the Fides missionary news agency that life for the country’s indigenous Christian minority is becoming increasingly intolerable.
“Christians live in constant fear of being attacked, kidnapped and killed by radical Islamic groups,” reported an Iraqi Catholic nun.

“Armed groups of Islamic fundamentalists break into homes of Christians to kill and steal. In some mosques Imams are now teaching that it is not a crime to kill a Christian.”

Christians are an easy target because they do not react with violence, and are mostly unarmed, the nun added.

“Our families are too afraid to send children to school and the women hardly ever leave the house. There is total anarchy in the absence of police and civil authorities. Many fundamentalists are known to all but no-one does anything.”

Speaking from Mosul, Fr Nizar Semaan, a parish priest, said “fundamentalist criminals” were continuing to attack the churches. “There are two options for Christians. Either we leave our country,” he said, “or we stay and are massacred.”

Fr Semaan appealed to Christians around the world. “Even if you are watching at a distance, do you feel solidarity or only pity? Couldn't you do something more?”

The World Maronite Union meanwhile said it plans to call a special meeting in Washington to which it will invite representatives of Iraq’s Chaldean Church. The meeting will consider ways of providing protection for Iraq’s Christian minority.

The National Review, an influential neo-conservative publication in the United States, last week appealed to the Bush administration to create a “safe haven” within Iraq specifically for Iraq’s estimated 700,000 Christians, 40,000 of whom are believed to have fled for safety in neighbouring Syria and Jordan since the war began.

The creation of such a zone, which is contemplated under the interim constitution approved by the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) earlier this year, could curb the growing exodus and might even persuade some who left to return, according to the author, Nina Shea, the director of Freedom House’s Centre for Religious Freedom.

“The community needs American help to create a district which should encompass the traditional community villages located near Mosul, in the Nineveh Plains”, wrote Shea.

“They believe that thousands of their members who have fled to other countries in the Middle East over the decades but are not permanently resettled could be persuaded to return to such a secure place.”

She also called on the State Department to begin providing reconstruction aid directly to the Christian community in the region, and not just to Arab and Kurdish groups living in the region.

Describing the Chaldean community as “the canaries in the coal mine for the Great Middle East,” Shea said the treatment of Christians are in the new Iraq “is being watched closely by Maronites of Lebanon, the Copts of Egypt, and other non-Muslim populations in the region.”