March 22, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 213

The Plight of Iraqi Christians

March 22, 2005 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 213

The kidnapping of Archbishop Basil Georges Casmoussa on January 17, 2005 in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and his subsequent release the following day, highlighted the plight of Iraqi Christians, like other Iraqi communities, facing threats from Islamist terrorists bent on plunging Iraq into ethnic conflict.

Deep Roots and Current Violence

The Iraqi daily Al-Mada recently carried a report about the ruins of what is believed to be the oldest Eastern Christian church, discovered in 1976 by an archeological team in the desert west of the holy Shi'ite city of Karbala. The church, known as Al-Qusair Church, was built in the 5th century, 120 years before the appearance of Islam and almost two centuries before the spread of Islam in what is known today as Iraq.

The church (53x13 feet) had fifteen arched doors. Inside archeologists found remnants of an altar and gammadion crosses. There were two small cemeteries, one within the church walls intended for the priests and one outside the walls for other church members.

During the Saddam regime, the eastern side of the church was converted into a training target for an artillery unit of the Iraqi army. A number of unexploded shells have been found within the church's perimeter. After the fall of Saddam, the tombs were desecrated by looters, who hoped to find gold buried with the dead. The Iraqi Department of Antiquities has recognized the historical significance of the church, and restoration and preservation are being considered. [1]

The Iraqi Christians

Iraqi Christians represent three percent of the Iraqi population (which is estimated at 26 million). [2] The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church - the Iraqi branch of Roman Catholicism. Chaldean Catholics are also known as "Assyrians." The patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church has clarified that "Assyrian" is an ethnic identity and "Chaldean" is a religious one. [3] There are other churches in Iraq, including the Roman Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Nestorian and Armenian. However, the distinction between these churches is not really understood by most Iraqi Muslims, who look upon all Christians as "People of the Book," as they are referred to in the Koran.

Under the secular Ba'th regime, the Christians in Iraq, who presented no threat to Saddam, enjoyed considerable religious freedom. In an interview with the Arabic-language London daily Al-Hayat, the Latin Patriarch in Iraq, Jan Suleiman, said that whenever Saddam Hussein was approached regarding a problem affecting the Christian education system in Iraq, he would intervene to resolve it. [4]

Violence Against Individuals

The high level of violence in Iraq has affected every sector of the Iraqi population, and Christians are no exception. Christians, however, have been specifically targeted by Islamists, who either accuse them of collaborating with the "invading crusading army" or label them infidels. As Islamist pressures mounted in Iraq, following its occupation, Christian businesses were destroyed, Christian university students were harassed and Christian women were forced to wear the veil. [5]

Suspected of Collaboration

Most Christian children attend Christian schools, where the teaching of a foreign language, primarily English, is a high priority in the curriculum. It is therefore understandable that the multinational forces have tapped the Christian community for office and translation work. However, the Christians are concerned that a prolonged occupation of Iraq by the multinational forces under the command of the United States will only heighten the accusations that they are collaborating with an occupation "originating from a Christian country." [6]

Recently, the unidentified "Brigades for the Liquidation of Christian Agents and Spies" has threatened to liquidate those working with the multinational forces and to "pursue them in their homes and churches." In placards posted in Christian areas, the Brigades wrote:

"The Christian minority enjoys peace and security in the land of the Muslim and in our country in particular. Its members have held senior positions in the State. But their malevolence toward Muslims became evident when the occupier entered our country. He found great support among them in the form of translators and agents who acted as informers against Muslims. Their churches receive evangelist groups. They spread moral corruption and pornography in our streets. Muslims have been arrested, women raped and houses destroyed as a result of Christians being agents of the occupiers." [7]

Violence Against Churches

In August 2004, five churches, one in Baghdad and four in Mosul, were hit in one day, in a coordinated attack that killed 12 people. In October, five churches in Baghdad were hit on the first day of the Muslim month of Ramadan. In November, eight people were killed in two church bombings. [8] The August attack on churches was followed on September 10 by mortar attacks against the Assyrian town in Bakhdeda (also referred to as Qarqosh ) in the Ninevah Governorate in northern Iraq. [9]

The Destruction of Businesses

With the public sector and the military all but closed to them, Christians have focused on the services sector of the economy and retail business. Because of Islamic restrictions on alcohol consumption, Iraqi governments have limited the liquor retail business to Christians, who, in turn, have been meeting an obviously high demand for alcoholic beverages among a large segment of the Iraqi Muslim population. In fact, a considerable amount of money under the "Oil for Food Program" was used by the Saddam regime for the import of the most expensive brands of alcoholic beverages for Saddam Hussein, his sons, and the high echelons of the secular Ba'th ruling party. At one time, the Coalition Provisional Authority was contemplating a public auction of high quality vintage wine and champagne found in the cellars of the palaces of Saddam, his sons, and their cronies.

Shortly after the fall of Saddam, Islamists, who took control of the streets of many Iraqi cities, began to target Christian owners of liquor stores. They first ordered the owners to close their businesses; if the owners failed to comply, the Islamists gutted the stores and often killed the owners. An example is liquor merchant Bashir Toma Alias, who was shot in the head in the center of a bazaar in Basra while on his way home to celebrate Christmas. [10]

Writing about the "deplorable attack against Chaldean Christians in Iraq," the Chaldean New Agency wrote on October 7, 2004:

"Not only did those heinous crimes result in the loss of innocent lives, but worse, they have created tremendous hardships for those Chaldean families whose very livelihood were attacked. With a lack of alternative jobs, many of them are currently living off the charitable contributions of the local Chaldean churches." [11]

The report goes on to warn that unless these "Islamic terrorists" are brought to justice, "Iraqi Chaldeans will continue to be an easy target for such criminals who are bent on imposing their distorted version of Islam by force." [12] It was reported that in the southern city of Basra, the second largest city in Iraq, armed Shi'ite groups with names such as "The Revenge of Allah," "Hizbullah," and "The Organization of Islamic Doctrines," roam the streets to mete out "Islamic punishment" on traders and users of alcohol, as well as on prostitutes. Four hundred Christian stores were closed. According to Faysal Abdullah, the head of the Organization of Islamic Doctrines, Islam "rewards those who seek martyrdom and who were designated by Allah to uproot vice." [13]

Often the police stand idly by in the face of crimes committed in their presence because they are afraid of the armed Islamists or because they sympathize with their aims.

The Christians complain that after they were driven out of the liquor business by Islamist groups, Muslims have taken over the business and continue to sell liquor publicly. [14]

The Islamists have also targeted barber shops run by Christians because the Islamists object to haircuts and to shaving. [15]

Harassment of Students

Christian students at Iraqi universities are also subjected to harassment and often to violence. At the University of Mosul, the second largest university in Iraq, 1,500 Christian students recently decided to suspend their studies because of threats to their lives by Islamists who have taken control of the university. [16] Because many of these students traveled to campus in buses from outside the city, they were afraid that their transportation would be bombed if they persisted in attending the university. [17]

A survey among Christian students carried out by the Iraqi daily Al-Mada has found similar sentiments among Christian students attending other institutions of higher learning in Iraq. They do not understand why they are being victimized. Anna Mirfit Boutrus, a 22-year-old student at the Technological University of Baghdad, expressed her distress:

"Why do the terrorists want to prevent us from performing our religious rites? Why do they bomb our churches? Why do they want to kill us… What have we done to them? We are citizens of this land. This is our country. We will not give it up and we will not replace it with another." [18]

For female Christian students, there is incessant pressure to wear the veil or put their lives in jeopardy. [19]

Christmas Celebrations

Christians celebrated Christmas in their homes, for fear of attacks. Most churches avoided the traditional midnight Mass or large gatherings of church goers. [20] Indeed, the churches called upon their parishioners to avoid coming to churches on Christmas out of concern for their safety. [21] Asked to comment on the situation on the eve of Christmas, Patriarch Emanuel III, the Patriarch of Babylon, responded:

"As leaders of the Christian communities in Iraq, we are pained by what has happened to our country. There is destruction of our people, resources, buildings and churches. We grieve the tragic death of many of our children and the injuries and psychological shocks suffered by others. Many of our citizens were subject to humiliating kidnapping, thefts, and expulsion." [22]

Sister Warda of the Daughters of Mary Convent commented that the cancellation of Christmas celebrations must be viewed in perspective. She said: "We cannot celebrate in isolation of what our relatives and brothers are subjected to in our wounded country." [23]

Conversion to Islam

Chaldeans also complain about pressures to convert to Islam. When a parent converts to Islam all minors in the family are forcefully converted regardless of the wishes of the other parent. [24]

Leaving the Country

The plight of Iraqi Christians is part of a rapidly deteriorating situation that is forcing Christians throughout the Middle East to seek refuge in the West. A recent article by Majid Aziza in the Iraqi daily Al-Zaman, a newspaper with a long-standing liberal pedigree, highlights the plight of Christians in the Arab and Muslim world:

"Christian natives of Arab countries are escaping their countries of origin. Statistics show that a large number of them have emigrated to countries which offer them and their children greater security, such as the United States, Canada, Australia and some European countries. The reason is the harassment to which they are subjected in countries they have inhabited for thousands of years. Sometimes the harassment originates from the regime; at other times it comes from extremist groups."

Saddam and the Iraqi Christians

On the one hand, Saddam Hussein supported Christian education; on the other, he forced Christians out of their villages in the north as part of the Arabization of Kirkuk and its environs. Many other Christians opted to leave their villages in the north because of the unsettled conflict between the Kurds and Saddam's regime. Now harassment by Islamists is forcing these transplants to return to the villages of their ancestors in the north. In the words of one person who plans to relocate: "Some of the Muslims consider us infidels. We are being targeted. They will eat us alive." [25] For Christians who have left Iraq, Syria remains the preferred country for temporary residence for two reasons: first, no visa is required and second, it provides security at a low cost of living. [26] Jordan is another country populated by a large number of Iraqi Christians.

Voting in the Elections

In a meeting with a Christian delegation, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani denounced the attacks on the churches and called upon Christians to participate in the elections to ensure maximum participation. [27] Al-Sistani has also been quoted as saying that he would have no objection for a Christian to be elected president of Iraq if he met the appropriate qualifications. [28]

There were no fewer than eight Christian parties that competed in the January 30 elections. The Christians were determined to vote because they believed an elected government would provide them with a measure of security they now lacked. They also counted on massive participation of Iraqi Christians in the Diaspora to vote for their parties. [29] The low rate of participation in the elections of Iraqis in exile must have been disappointing to the Christians.

In the elections, one Christian party, the National Rafidain, received approximately 37,000 votes, entitling it to one seat in the 275-seat assembly.

The low turnout of the Christian voters was involuntary. Many of the Christians live in Sunni provinces, particularly in Ninevah and Salahudin in the so-called Sunni triangle. Tens of thousands of Christians who intended to vote discovered on election day that the Independent Elections Committee did not provide ballot boxes in these two provinces because of security concerns. Christians complained that tens of thousands of their community were in essence disenfranchised, particularly in the city of Mosul, for no fault of their own. Many others may have sought the security of their homes rather than risk violence while going out to vote. [30]

*Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is Senior Analyst of MEMRI's Middle East Economic Studies Program.

[1] Al-Mada (Baghdad), December 30, 2004.

[2] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), September 22, 2004.

[3] Jonathan Eric Lewis, "Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism," The Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 10 (Summer 2003).

[4] Interview with Arfan Rashid, Al-Hayat (London), October 4, 2004.

[5] See MEMRI's Inquiry & Analysis No. 190, "Islamist Pressures in Iraq,", September 29, 2004. Islamist Pressures in Iraq

[6] The Iraqi daily Al-Zaman ( September 22, 2003 ) quoted a Chaldean woman named Sanaa as claiming that she was repeatedly accused by Muslims of being a cousin of the Americans.

[7], October 21, 2004.

[8] Reuters, December 25, 2004.

[9] Assyrian International News Age ncy, September 13, 2004.

[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 31, 2004.


[12] Loc. cit.

[13] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 31, 2004.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 31, 2004.

[15] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 12, 2004.

[16] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), October 21, 2004.

[17] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), September 14, 2004.

[18] Al-Mada (Baghdad) January 2, 2005.

[19] Al-Zaman (Baghdad), December 24, 2004.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 26, 2004.

[21] Al-Mada (Baghdad), January 2, 2005.

[22] Al-Sabah (Baghdad), December 25, 2004.

[23] Ibid.


[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 12, 2004.

[26] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 17, 2004.

[27] Al-Sabah (Baghdad), October 30, 2004.

[28] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 17, 2004.

[29] Al-Hayat (Lebanon), December 11, 2004.

[30] Al-Mada (Baghdad), February 6, 2005.

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