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After Years of Relative Peace, Christians Live in Fear

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Times Staff Writer

A wave of attacks on churches and Christians viewed as infidels or collaborators is generating alarm among a Christian community that has long lived in relative peace alongside Iraq’s Muslim majority.

Growing antagonism from Islamic extremists and insurgents has driven tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians from the country in the last 18 months, and many more are planning to emigrate.

“We are crying tears of blood in grief for what is happening in Iraq,” said Khayri Estayfan Abona, a 44-year-old mechanical engineer and father of three who was among a number of Christians lined up at a passport office here. “We are weak and helpless, so we are made into scapegoats.”

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In the northern city of Mosul, home to a large Christian population, leaflets from self-described mujahedin warned women to cover their faces and dress conservatively during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Christian students at Mosul University boycotted classes last month after threats from extremists. Rumors have spread of expropriation of Christian property. Graffiti have warned Christians to leave or face death.

“Muslims and Christians have been living together on this land for more than a millennium, as brothers living in one homeland,” declared several Christian groups in a public appeal issued last month seeking support from Muslims. “The blood of Christians mixed with the blood of Muslims in defending this land.”

Privately, some Christians fear repression and a sanctioned pogrom if conservative Islamists come to power next year, when Iraq is scheduled to hold its first democratic elections. Islamic groups long repressed under Saddam Hussein’s secular regime have moved to the forefront of Iraqi political life since U.S.-led forces ousted the dictator. Christians have endeavored to maintain a low profile amid the turmoil.

Christians are said to have resided in what is now Iraq since the early days of their religion. Today, Iraq’s diverse Christian population stands at about 800,000, according to community estimates, or about 3% of the nation’s population of 25 million.

Although Christians have long been marginalized in Iraq, and suffered like most Iraqis under totalitarian rule, even Hussein’s Baathist regime did not systematically persecute them. Christian villages in the north were emptied as part of Hussein’s “Arabization” campaign, but that drive was primarily aimed at displacing Muslim Kurds and creating a new Arab majority in areas close to the lucrative oil fields.

Many Iraqi Christians did well in business and assorted trades, particularly the hotel and restaurant sectors. Hussein’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, currently in U.S. custody, was perhaps the best-known Christian in Iraq. Christians here generally are considered pro- democracy and liberal.

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Driving away this generally well-educated and moderate population can only harm a nation with a dire need for economic advancement and tolerance, Christian leaders say.

“What worries us is the tyranny of the majority,” said Wathiq Hindo, a U.S.-educated businessman and prominent Christian whose uncle was an archbishop of the Syriac Catholic Church.

“Saddam was a dictator, but he was not a religious fanatic. Religious fanaticism is a threat to us,” said Hindo, who graduated from a Jesuit high school and college in Baghdad.

Although fanaticism may motivate some of the attacks, others probably are related to the widespread perception that Iraqi Christians welcomed the downfall of Hussein and the arrival of the U.S. military. Insurgents have targeted anyone working with U.S. troops, be they Muslim or Christian, Arab or Kurd.

Late last month, Christian representatives here estimated that about 7% of their fellow Christians -- or more than 50,000 people -- had left Iraq since Hussein was toppled. A large number headed initially to Syria, where many have relatives. But the ultimate hope of a great number of Christians is to immigrate eventually to the United States, Canada, Australia or other destinations for the Iraqi Christian diaspora.

One of the largest Iraqi Christian communities in the United States is in San Diego County. Iraqi immigrants there say they are increasingly dismayed as they hear of difficulties for Christians in their homeland. Efforts to get approval from the federal government to allow fleeing Christians into the U.S. have been unavailing, community leaders said.

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“It’s very bad,” said Jibran Hannaney, a civil engineer. “As much as I thought the grace of God was coming to our people when Saddam Hussein was pushed from power, basically it’s been the wrath of the devil instead. This liberation-turned- occupation has not helped our people.”

Hannaney said almost all Iraqi Christian families in San Diego County have relatives and friends who have fled Iraq for Jordan, Syria, Australia or another country after learning that they could not enter the United States.

The recent migration is an acceleration of an established trend of Iraqi Christians seeking opportunities elsewhere. The withering cycle of warfare and sanctions has prompted as much as half of the nation’s Christian population to emigrate since the 1980s, community leaders say.

The great majority of Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, an Eastern Rite Catholic group. Other groups -- Assyrians, Syriacs and Armenians -- also have lived here for generations. One sect, the Mandaeans, are followers of John the Baptist. Some Christians still speak and hold services in a modern-day form of Aramaic, the language Jesus is said to have spoken.

A smattering of Protestants and Roman Catholics also have lived in Iraq since the period of British rule after World War I. In addition, the fall of Hussein has drawn Protestant missionaries.

Coordinated bombings of at least seven Baghdad churches in the last four weeks followed attacks on churches in Baghdad and Mosul in August that left 11 dead and 50 wounded. Some churches have suspended Sunday services.

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Numerous Christian-run liquor stores have been firebombed and forced to close. Because alcohol is taboo to Muslims, Christians traditionally have been the only Iraqis licensed to sell it.

“We’ve always been able to do our job and live with our Muslim neighbors in peace, but now all that is changed,” said Imad Polis Jajo, whose liquor store in Baghdad was firebombed last summer.

A few days after the bombing, a letter arrived at Jajo’s door. If he attempted to restart the business, it warned, his 15-year-old son, Rafeef, would be kidnapped. Jajo is now unemployed and must seek help from relatives, he said during a recent interview at a near-deserted Christian social club in central Baghdad. Its gloomy emptiness attested to the fear that has gripped the Christian community here.

“Even during the time of Saddam we were free to come to our club,” said Sameer Khouri, the administrative secretary of the facility. “Now, people are afraid to leave their homes.”

In Mosul, some Christian women have acceded to anonymous demands to modify their dress in accordance with Islamic code as a means of self-protection.

“I put on the hijab [head scarf] ... to prevent being harmed by these crazy people,” said Dalia Ishaq, 18, a student at the Fine Arts Institute for Girls in Mosul. She blamed the excesses on extremists.

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“All my friends are Muslim girls,” Ishaq said, “and this threat would never change my relationship with them.”

Throughout Iraq, Christians interviewed echoed those sentiments, emphasizing their ties to Muslim neighbors.

“I have so many Muslim friends, and they have never treated me harshly -- they are just like my sisters,” said Rana Saeed Jerjees, 25, a teacher in Mosul. “I think there are certain people who want a civil war to break out in Mosul and all over Iraq. This is all part of a major plan, and we must never surrender to such schemes.”

Mainstream Muslim clerics and the Iraqi interim government have repeatedly condemned sectarian attacks on Christians. The nation’s interim constitution explicitly recognizes religious freedom and the rights of minorities.

However, many Christians wonder whether the government -- battered by an insurgency and needing U.S.-led multinational troops to maintain some semblance of order -- can prevent such violence.

One plan under consideration is for Christians to field a slate of candidates for January’s elections to ensure that they are represented in the 275-member National Assembly.

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Another idea that has met with a cool reception among Christians is the creation of a kind of Christian safe haven in the plains of Nineveh province, outside Mosul. Proponents hope to attract Christians who have left the country, but others fear a kind of rural ghettoization.

“We don’t want to be refugees in our own homeland,” said Yunadam Khanna, a Christian representative in Iraq’s interim parliament. “There is a general crisis in Iraq, and what is happening to the Christians is part of that crisis.”

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Times staff writer Suhail Ahmed and special correspondent Said Rifai in Baghdad, special correspondent Roaa Ahmed in Mosul and staff writer Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.

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