Over the last month, a dear Iraqi woman friend in Baghdad has been sending me especially distressing emails. Her communications have followed me from New York City, where I live, to Amman, Jordan, where I was recently for two weeks:
Actually we are in great turmoil starting from Easter day. Many cars explode simultaneously yesterday. Seven apartment buildings were exploded . . . many people under the ruins until now . . . we are afraid to use our cars because anyone can put an adhesive bomb . . . as it happen with many people and doctors . . . we live in constant fear and horror and agony. (April 7, 2010)
Yesterday there were several car explosions in different areas of Baghdad and especially in Sadr City. The condition is tense and we are afraid that the sectarian violence may return again . . . our church’s committee circulated between the Christians that there is no need to visit churches on Sunday to pray . . . instead stay home and pray . . . we are afraid the terrorists may explode churches again. Keep praying for us. (April 24, 2010)
As you can read, the family is Christian, members of the Chaldean Catholic Church if my memory serves me correctly. Baghdad is perhaps the most dangerous place for Christians in Iraq, with Mosul close behind. The United Nations reported that in just one week this past February, over 4,000 Christians fled their homes in Mosul due to violent killings. Once 3% of the population, over 200,000 Christians have fled Iraq since 2003.
In a recent BBC broadcast, “Heart and Soul – Iraq’s Forgotten Conflict” (Apr.15, 2010), journalist Edward Stourton traveled to Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul and the Ankawa region to report on the story of Iraq’s religious minorities. In Baghdad, he interviewed Canon Andrew White, Vicar of St. George’s Church, the only Anglican Church in Iraq. “We are attacked very regularly,” he said. “There are attacks from individuals, from churches . . . there’s hardly a person in our church who has not lost a member of their family in this conflict.” Stourton then asked him, “Is it getting any better?” and Canon White replied, simply, “No, it’s not getting better. It’s actually getting worse.”
While being interviewed later in the documentary, Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk asked, “Does nobody care what is going on here?” It is a both a cry of frustration and a plea for help in the face of ongoing violence against Christians in Iraq, which remains one of the most under-reported stories in the press.
During frequent visits to Jordan and Syria over the last six years, I have heard again and again the personal stories of Iraqi religious minorities who fled their country because of attacks on their families, their homes, their churches, and their businesses. I first met the husband and one of the sons of the above-mentioned family in 2006 in Amman. The father is a doctor who retired in 2008 after being kidnapped. He worked in one of Baghdad’s large general hospitals. The father and son had come to Amman so the son (I will call him Yusif) could undergo an operation to save what vision was left in his right eye. The next year, I met Yusif’s mother when she accompanied him to Amman for yet another eye operation.
Over the years, when giving presentations in the U.S. about the war, I sometimes spoke of Yusif. This courageous young man’s story warrants retelling.
In May of 2006, Yusif was on his way in a taxi to his classes at the University of Baghdad. He was in the front seat of the taxi alongside of the driver. When the taxi stopped at a checkpoint, a car pulled up along the passenger side next to Yusif and exploded. Yusif lost his lower right leg in the suicide bomb attack and suffered multiple shrapnel sounds, some of which are still embedded in the right side of his body. Somehow, despite the ordeal of multiple operations to his leg and eye, Yusif managed to finish his undergraduate studies in Baghdad.
At one point in “Iraq’s Forgotten Conflict,” Stourton asked Archbishop Sako, “Take me back to the aftermath of the overthrow of the regime.” Archbishop Sako responded, “We didn’t expect the consequences . . . Because of the mistakes of the Americans . . . the borders were open . . . not watched . . . many fighters came . . . our churches were attacked and kidnappings . . . 60% left the country due to lack of security.” In addition to the violence, Fr. Sako continued, Evangelical Christian church groups from outside Iraq rushed into the political void and chaos to try to establish themselves and win converts. “In Baghdad alone,” he said, “more than thirty such church groups descended after the fall of the regime . . . giving money, bringing books,” trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. “Muslims are not allowed to change their religion,” he said. “They [the Evangelical Christian missionaries] didn’t ask us” whether missionary efforts would be well received. “They didn’t respect our Christianity which has been here since the 1st century,” he said. In a very short period of time, according to Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, “Centuries of quite fruitful co-existence have been wiped out.”
Stourton asked Dr. Williams if he thinks it’s possible he may live to see the end of Christianity as a real force in the Middle East. Dr. Williams answered affirmatively, “Christians are simply disappearing from the land where Christianity began . . . after centuries of peaceful religious co-existence.” Dr. William sees the political health of the whole region intrinsically tied up with this question.
“I think Western powers are in a bit of a double bind here,” he said, “because, of course, stepping in on the grounds of defending Christian communities in Islamic society just redoubles the perception that Christians are somehow aliens who need foreigners to defend them, and that’s the last thing people want.” As for the church, Dr. Williams concluded, one of the most important things is “to keep going there [to Iraq], to keep informing ourselves and reminding communities that they are not forgotten.”
Yesterday, I visited a Chaldean Catholic refugee family I know quite well here in Damascus. As I entered the apartment, they asked me if I had heard about what had happened in Mosul the day before? I hadn’t. They turned on the television and we were suddenly in a hospital in Iraq with bed after bed of wounded and unconscious young people surrounded by their parents. A suicide car bomb exploded among three busloads of young Iraqis, all of them Christian I believe, as they were on their way to classes at the university. One weeping mother said, “God forgive those who did this.” A father said, “What is their sin? Why did they do this?” A priest said tearfully on the news, “This explosion is against all humanity. They were not carrying weapons [the students], they were carrying books and pencils.” We sat together watching the grieving parents and community in Mosul.
Mosul and Baghdad. Two places you don’t want to be if you are Christian. The family whom I was visiting has two married daughters and a son living in Mosul. Until recently, their son had been with them in Damascus, but three months ago, when he heard there was no chance of resettlement for his family, he and his wife and their two children (one of whom is severely handicapped) returned to Iraq. As we listened to the news we could not hold back our own tears. They told me how two of their daughters had dropped out of university because it had been too dangerous. They pressed me to stay for dinner and I gratefully accepted. During the meal, their four-year-old grandson tried to show off his few words of English. “I love you,” he said. I answered, “I love you, too.” And he came back immediately with a knee-jerk answer: “I love you three.”