Iraq: Baghdad Christians flee as violence against them mounts

News and Press Release
Originally published
BAGHDAD, 3 May 2007 (IRIN) - Kamar Anuar, a 44-year-old Christian, has abandoned his home after he found a threatening letter in his garden, signed by an alleged Islamist group, telling him to convert to Islam or leave the country.

Anuar, a resident of Dora district, one of the mainly Christian Baghdad neighbourhoods, has decided to take refuge in a relative's home in Kurdistan in the north.

"We [Christians] are at the end of our tether because in four years of [US] occupation and discrimination against our religion, we have never felt so threatened," said Anuar. "In my neighbourhood, every Christian family has received threatening letters."

Anuar is one of thousands of people from minority groups who live in fear of their lives.

"I saw a family being killed in front of me because they refused to leave their home. Insurgents shot dead the couple, an elderly woman and two children, and left a message by their side saying that it [the killing] was just to show what would happen if any other [Christian] family insisted on remaining in Dora district, which is already populated by Sunni fighters," Anuar added.

Alleged Islamists have said the country should be cleansed of Christians as they support the US-led occupation.

"This is a country of people who are fighting against the US occupation and everyone who supports them. Christians can leave Iraq without being hurt but if they insist on staying, we don't have any option but to kill them," said Abu Ahmed, who claims to be from a Sunni insurgent group called Al-Qa'idah.

"We don't support the US troops or anyone who is destroying our country. Extremists have this idea about us and we are paying for something we don't believe in," Anuar said.

Forced to convert

According to the local Christian Peace Association (CPA), the fatwa, issued by extremists and distributed in every Christian neighbourhood, said that Christians can only stay in their homes if they convert to Islam.

"They want us to change our beliefs. We are forbidden from going to churches or holding religious meetings in our homes and our women are being forced to wear abayas [the traditional full-length cloak that Muslim women wear] when out in the streets," said the Christian cleric and spokesperson for the CPA, Lucas Barini.

"We have heard of cases of families who were taken from their homes by extremists to convert them to Islam. The brave ones who refused to convert were beheaded and their mutilated bodies were later dumped in front of their homes," Barini said.

According to the CPA, about 600,000 Christians remain in Iraq, and make up less than 3 percent of the population.

Kidnapped children

The CPA said it had received information that some Christian children, kidnapped over the past two years, are being used by [Sunni] insurgents to fight [Shi'a] militias and US troops.

"We cannot release the source [of the information] for security reasons but we are sure about these children. There are about 25 of them and, according to a witness, they have been told that their families converted to Islam but were killed by US troops and now they have to help fight them," Barini said.

Protection money

As the number of Christians in Iraq continues to fall, many of them are being forced to pay protection money to Shi'a militias or Sunni insurgents.

"The protection money has been increasing and we cannot afford it any more. Each time we pay, the following month they demand more," said Rita Darnek, a 38-year-old Christian mother of four who is desperate to find a way to flee the country.

"One of my neighbours in Baghdad's Ijidida neighbourhood refused to pay because he didn't have the money and they shot him dead together with his 13-year-old son," Darnek added.

Father Boris Burdati said families who cannot pay the protection money are leaving for areas in Kurdistan which are hosting Christians who fled from Mosul and Baghdad.

"Many families are taking refuge in A'ain camp, a few kilometres from the city of Arbil in the Kurdish north and others are going to cities near the Syrian border like Bashika," said Burdati.

"They sought our help before leaving as they couldn't pay more protection money. Some families were paying more than US$ 2,000 a month and using up all their savings, so running away was a better way to ensure survival," he added.