Christians fear for their lives after lynchings

At the Rev Thair Abdal's church, where on Sunday mornings sweet songs of prayer stream from the doorway, the congregation's fear of death leaves the sanctuary half-filled.

Gulf News

Baghdad: At the Rev Thair Abdal's church, where on Sunday mornings sweet songs of prayer stream from the doorway, the congregation's fear of death leaves the sanctuary half-filled.

"It's very clear," Abdal said. "Like the light of day, you cannot hide it."

Guards with AK-47 assault rifles man the heavy gates outside. Priests remove their black robes and white collars when they travel in the city.

Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically since last year, but members of the country's Christian denominations say they are increasingly under threat.


In March, Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul's Chaldean community, was found dead after being abducted. This month, Yousuf Adel, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, was shot dead in a drive-by attack in Karrada, one of Baghdad's safest neighbourhoods and home to Abdal's Holy Catholic Assyrian Church.

Dozens of churches, monasteries and other buildings have been firebombed, looted or occupied by Muslims since June 2004, according to Assyrian church leaders. Christian relief organisations describe the plight of Iraqi Christians as "ethnic cleansing".

Most Christians in Iraq are Chaldeans, members of an Eastern Rite denomination that recognises the pope's authority.

Other sizable denominations include the Assyrian Catholic Church, which traces its roots to the first century. Iraqi Christians are also affiliated with the Church of the East, the Anglican Church and other Protestant faiths.

In a meeting last week, Pope Benedict XVI and US President George W. Bush said they discussed the "precarious state" of Christian communities in Iraq and the Middle East.

The Iraqi Christian population numbered 1.35 million before the Gulf War in 1991, according to politicians who cite government statistics from the time. That number has dropped by at least half, according to politicians, priests and religious organisations, mainly because Christians have fled the country in the years since the US-led invasion in 2003.

"The Christians don't have armies," said Joe Obayda, who leads the British-based relief group Iraqi Christians in Need. "They don't have militias and they are not vying for power."

Lost hope

Obayda said many Christians are applying to remain in Jordan and Syria and have lost hope of going home.

"They are stuck. They don't think they can go back," he said. "They don't think it will be secure for them in future."

The Rev Dawood Ougin heads a small Church of the East parish in Baghdad that now has 120 families, down from 250.

"If you kidnap one person, everybody in the family will leave," Ougin said. One man's son, a toddler, was kidnapped for two weeks, he said. The family had to pay $30,000 ransom to get the child back. "After that, 18 people left for Jordan, fled," he said.

"They sell everything to live in horrible conditions in Syria, Jordan and Turkey," Ougin said.

Ougin said Christians from his community immediately reached out to American officers after the fall of Saddam Hussain in 2003 and sat on U.S.-backed neighbourhood councils. But he said Americans had little understanding of Iraq, an ignorance that has led to problems.

"We have tried to help build our country; instead it's a disaster," he said.

Abdal said the US government's early emphasis on allocating power in Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines heightened tensions.

Abdal received a telephone call some time ago at the start of a major kidnapping campaign targeting priests. Many of those kidnapped were his friends and had his name in their cellphones. "Now there is no kidnapping," Abdal said. "There is killing."