Iraqi Christian refugees pine for home, but fear they face death
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7 May 2008 | 08-0365 |

Iraqi Christian refugees pine for home, but fear they face death

Annegret Kapp
Damascus (ENI). Iraqi Christians who have taken refuge in Syria yearn to go home, but the intimidation they faced in Iraq makes it difficult to return.

"Although I had been threatened many times in Iraq, I did not want to leave," says the Armenian Orthodox hairdresser Cayran Vartan Roupen. "But then my shop was burnt and the car of my husband, who used to work as a driver, was stolen. So we left everything behind and fled."

When church leaders from around the world visited Syria in April, Iraqis who had fled their homes and their community for the hard life of refugees, said they felt a need to tell their stories to those they hope are empowered to assist in bringing an end to their tragedy.

At a meeting in Damascus, the refugees spoke in front of church members from the United States, Germany, Lebanon, Pakistan and Sweden, along with the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, and his counterpart from the Middle East Council of Churches, Guirgis Ibrahim Saleh.

The church representatives heard stories of suffering in Iraq, and hospitality in Syria. They heard about the pain of living in Iraq and eventually leaving. They heard of the strain the influx of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees has placed on the economy of Syria, creating the need for jobs, safety and security, despite the unanswered questions of "what's next" for the Iraqis.

Prices of food and housing are skyrocketing, and it is hard to find a well-paid job. "Even if there were no refugees, the economy would have to create thousands of job opportunities a year in order to integrate our young people who join the labour market," Samer Laham, director of ecumenical relations at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East, explained to the visitors from abroad.

The Iraqis who spoke to the visiting teams referred to the trauma suffered by their children and the insecurity of their future. Hairdresser Roupen, said her son cannot speak normally after having narrowly avoided being kidnapped.

"Animals live better lives than human beings in Iraq," said Samira, a Syrian Orthodox refugee. "At least they have the freedom to move. We were even too afraid to go to church because people were kidnapped from church."

Samira said that one day, when she was still in Iraq, she went shopping with her daughter. "Three gunmen stopped us. They pushed my daughter around and asked her why she was in the street without a veil. Since then, she did not want to leave home and she dropped out of university."

The Christian refugees said that in Iraq they had experienced that belonging to a religious minority is dangerous. "Christians and other minorities are paying the price for the Iraq war," said Laham, the ecumenical officer of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. "They are suspected of being traitors and of helping the allied forces, as if they were not an original part of the social fabric and had not shared the bread with their Muslim brothers for centuries."

Aram, who belonged to the Armenian Orthodox Church in Baghdad, said: "My wife and I knew some Christians who were killed. As our numbers were on their mobile phones, their murderers used them to call and threaten us."

Aram also told about the mistrust that is poisoning communities in Iraq: "We had some friends, who turned out to work for the Mahdi Army [the militia of Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr]. We thought they were friends, but they took our pictures in order to have us killed."

Until the US-led military action in 2003, Christians accounted for roughly 3 per cent of Iraq's 29 million people. Approximately 70 per cent of the Christians belong to the Chaldean church, which follows the ancient Chaldean rite but is in union with the Catholic Church. About 60 percent of Iraqi's are Shiite Muslims, while about 35 percent are Sunni Muslims.

Incidents such as the publishing of the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in Denmark in 2005 benefit the extremists, who use them to justify a hidden agenda to kick "non-believers" out of the country, said Munir from the Calvinist community in Baghdad.

"My family was threatened: 'Either you leave within 15 minutes or we will kill you'," Munir described his own experience. He added that they did not know how serious the threat was, so they went to his sister's apartment next door and waited. Soon an armed gang arrived. "They raped our wives, and even my eighty-year-old mother was beaten." After Munir's brother-in-law, who had been kidnapped, was freed, the family left immediately, "without even taking any clothes with us", and selling the apartment for a quarter of its value.

Despite finding sanctuary in Syria, life is not easy, as the resources which refugees managed to bring with them are soon used up, and jobs are hard to find.

"I have a brother and a sister outside the region," Munir said. "We depend on them and are a burden on them. But they cannot afford to send us money all the time."

A psychological burden for many families is the knowledge that any emergency or illness will find them without protection. Kwarin, a father of four, left his job with a security company in Baghdad to join his family in exile and take care of his children. "My wife urgently needs an operation," he said, "but I have no money to pay for it."

While the refugees are grateful to Syria and the churches there for welcoming them, many feel let down by the international community. Frustration prevails about the western embassies who have rejected visa applications again and again.

Cries of "No!" or even "Never!", in English and Arabic, filled the room, as the question of whether they want to return to Iraq was put to the refugees. "Of course I want to go back to my country," a young woman from Basra explained. "But can you guarantee that I will not be killed? My relatives went back and were killed in one night."

Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who was himself born in Iraq, told the visitors about a priest of his church who had been killed just one week earlier, after he conducted Mass. He said, "We do not want Iraq to be emptied of Christians but if they are in danger there, how could we tell them to stay?"
Annegret Kapp is a Web editor with the World Council of Churches. This is an edited version of an article carried by the WCC.

Some of those interviewed in this story asked to have only their first names used.

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