Iraq's Christian Minority Flees Violence

Iraqi Christians attend a church service in Baghdad, Iraq, Sunday, May 6, 2007. In recent weeks, Islamic extremists have increasingly targeted Christians, throwing many out of their houses or demanding they convert or pay a special tax traditionally levied on non-Muslims. (AP Photo/Hadi MIzban) AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

Despite the chaos and sectarian violence raging across Baghdad, Farouq Mansour felt relatively safe as a Christian living in a multiethnic neighborhood in the capital.

Then, two months ago, al Qaeda gunmen kidnapped him and demanded that his family convert to Islam or pay a $30,000 ransom. Two weeks later, he paid up, was released and immediately fled to Syria, joining a mass exodus of Iraq's increasingly threatened Christian minority.

"There is no future for us in Iraq," Mansour said.

Although Islamic extremists have targeted Iraqi Christians before, bombing churches and threatening religious leaders, the latest attacks have taken on a far more personal tone. Many Christians are being expelled from their homes and forced to leave their possessions behind, police, human rights groups and residents said.

The Christian community here, about 3 percent of the country's 26 million people, has little political or military clout to defend itself, and some Islamic insurgents call Christians "crusaders" whose real loyalty lies with U.S. troops.

Many churches are now nearly empty, with many of their faithful either gone or too scared to attend. Only about 30 people attended this Sunday's mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in the relatively safe Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah, and only two dozen took communion in the barren St. Mary's Church in the northern city of Kirkuk on Sunday.

As many as 50 percent of Iraq's Christians may already have left the country, according to a report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal monitoring and advisory group in Washington D.C.

"These groups face widespread violence from Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadis, and they also suffer pervasive discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the national government, regional governments, and para-state militias," said the report.

Islamic extremists have also targeted liquor stores, hair salons and other Christian-owned businesses, saying they violate Islam, the report said.

"This is not the culture of Iraqis or the nature of Iraqis. We have lived during centuries together in a respectful attitude and friendship," said Luwis Zarco, the Catholic archbishop of Kirkuk.

In much of the Middle East, Christians are a largely tolerated minority that have achieved a measure of business and professional success, but they are sometimes viewed with suspicion by their Muslim neighbors.

In Saddam-era Iraq, the country's 800,000 Christians — many of them Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics — were generally left alone. Many, such as Saddam Hussein's foreign minister and deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, reached the highest levels of power.

But after U.S. forces toppled Saddam, insurgents launched a coordinated bombing campaign in the summer of 2004 against Baghdad churches, sending some Christians fleeing in fear.

A second wave of anti-Christian attacks hit last September after Pope Benedict XVI made comments perceived to be anti-Islam. Church bombings spiked and a priest in the northern city of Mosul was kidnapped and later found beheaded.

In the recent violence, residents of the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora said gunmen knocked on the doors of Christian families, demanding they either pay jizya — a special tax traditionally levied on non-Muslims — or leave. The jizya has not been imposed in Muslim nations in about 100 years.

  • Alfonso Serrano

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