May 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Leaders of Iraq's Christian community estimate that over two-thirds of the country's Christian population has fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
While exact numbers are unknown, reports suggest that whole neighborhoods of Christians have cleared out in the cities of Baghdad and Al-Basrah, and that both Sunni and Shi'ite insurgent groups and militias have threatened Christians.
The gravity of the situation prompted Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani last week to ask Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi to take steps to protect the Christian community. Sunni imams in Baghdad have made similar statements to their congregations in Friday Prayer sermons. Fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr this week warned Christians in Baghdad to wear the veil or face grave consequences.
Al-Qaeda Demands Tribute
The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq is responsible for the bulk of attacks on Christians from the northern Kurdish region to Baghdad.
Insurgents laid siege to the Al-Durah neighborhood of Baghdad earlier this month and demanded that Christians living there pay jizya, a head tax on non-Muslims living under Muslim rule, to the mujahedin or else convert to Islam. The Islamic State also hung posters throughout Al-Durah calling on Christian women to veil their faces. Locals report that nearly 200 Christian families have fled the neighborhood recently with just the clothes on their backs.
In other cases, families have been given 72 hours to pack their belongings and leave. Some have fled to Kurdistan, but the majority have left for Syria and Jordan, Christian leaders say.
"Al-Bayyinah" reported on May 10 that there are some 200 Saudi gunmen holed up in Al-Durah. According to a May 22 "Al-Sabah" editorial, the gunmen demanded that each Christian pay 50,000 dinars ($40) to the mujahedin as the price for maintaining their religion. Residents were told that "if they refuse to pay the tribute, they have to convert to Islam and marry their daughters to the mujahedin. If they choose to leave the city, their properties and belongings will be confiscated by the terrorists," the daily reported.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State has demanded Christians pay 250,000 dinars (about $200, the average monthly salary) to stay in their homes, according to aina.org on May 25. The website reported on May 18 that those who do flee Al-Durah must pay an "exit" fee of $200 per person or $400 per car.
Church leaders have also been targeted by insurgents. Over the past year, six Chaldean priests were kidnapped in Baghdad. In March, two elderly Chaldean nuns in Kirkuk were killed by insurgents as they slept. There are unconfirmed reports that a Christian teenager in Al-Basrah was crucified in October.
Moreover, 27 churches have been destroyed since 2003. Dozens of other churches and monasteries have been abandoned after threats were made.
Some Christian leaders have likened the targeting of Christians to an ethnic-cleansing campaign. "Christians in Iraq are on their way to extinction, cut off from the country's political process," said Father Bashar Warda, the rector of St. Peter Major Seminary, IRNews reported on May 25. He blamed the continuing crisis on the "indifference of Iraqi leaders," saying, "They do not consider us as belonging to this nation."
Other Minorities Also Threatened
Recent incidents in Mosul have drawn attention to the targeting of other minorities. Following reports last month that a Yezidi teenager who eloped with a Muslim man and converted to Islam was killed by her family, the Islamic State announced that it would retaliate.
Insurgents from the group then stopped a busload of textile workers heading home from a Mosul factory on April 22. After checking the identification cards of the passengers, which indicate their religion, the group pulled the Yezidis from the bus and shot them dead. The incident demonstrates the sort of attacks on the Yezidi population by Al-Qaeda in recent months.
According to an Internet statement this month, Yezidi leaders have formed a militia to protect their community. "According to the present circumstances in the Sheykhan area of evilness and aggression toward the Yezidi sect, the burning of their cultural and religious centers...and the silence that accompanied the aggression from those who sold their religion to the masters of material and power.... We have formed a troop of the brave and faithful from the Yezidi clan called the Malik Al-Tawus [King Peacock] troop," the statement said. The troop is "completely independent" from all parties and is charged with protecting the land and secret places of the Yezidis in both Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, the May 3 statement added.
The daily "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" reported on May 15 that the Sabaean community has been threatened as well.
Shi'ite Militias: Attackers Or Defenders?
Shi'ite militias have also targeted the Christian community. Fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr this week warned Christians in Baghdad to wear the veil or face grave consequences, aina.org reported on May 30. A statement issued by al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army rationalized that since the Virgin Mary wore a veil, present-day Christians should too. The statement claimed that the militia has formed committees to monitor Christians and enforce the veiling decree.
The statement, signed by the "People's Foundation for the Master Al-Mahdi Army," referred to the writings of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (Muqtada's father) who the group claimed ruled, presumably through a fatwa, that women who did not veil themselves were adulteresses who should be locked up by their husbands if they refuse to veil their faces.
In a Friday Prayer sermon on May 25, Muqtada al-Sadr vowed that he was committed to protecting Iraq's Christian community, telling his followers: "I will not forget to say the blood of Sunnis and Iraqi Christians are prohibited to be shed by Iraqis as they are either our brothers in religion or in the homeland. They have sought our refuge, and we announce our readiness to defend them."
This Baghdad church was targeted for an attack in August 2005 (epa)Continuing, he said: "What Al-Nawasib [a derogatory term for Sunni insurgents] are doing in order to compel [Christians] to convert to Islam is ignominious, and contradicts the Koran, as God says, 'Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from error.' I tell the Christian brothers so that they can know that Islam serves the needs of the minorities, and that it is the religion that always calls for interfaith dialogue."
Meanwhile, al-Sadr spokesman Hasan al-Zarqani claimed in a May 25 interview with Al-Jazeera television that the Chaldean community in Iraq has said the Al-Mahdi Army "was the only side that protected Christians in Al-Durah."
Government Unable To Deal With Crisis
The Iraqi government last week expressed its "solidarity" with the Christian community, and that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet discussed the threats and expulsions of Christian families and vowed to provide assistance to families displaced or adversely affected by insurgent attacks.
But it appears there has been little concrete support for Iraq's Christian community. Until Iraqi security forces can clear Al-Durah of Sunni and Shi'ite insurgents, the few Christians still living there will remain under threat. Those who have joined the millions of refugees and displaced, will be forced to continue living in limbo until an acceptable solution can be found.
There is little question that the targeting of minority communities has had an adverse impact on Iraq, a country that historically was known for its diversity. Already by some estimates, only 200,000-400,000 of the 1.5 million Christians living in Iraq in 2003 remain. For Iraq's Christians, many of whom trace their presence in the country to their Assyrian ancestors, the impact of such displacement is immeasurable.
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