Mixed blessings for Iraqi Christians, year after war against Saddam

Agence France Presse
March 15, 2004 Monday

Mixed blessings for Iraqi Christians, a year after war against Saddam



Faced by rampant insecurity and indiscriminate bombings nearly a year
after the start of the 2003 war, Iraq’s depleted Christian community
is more frightened but less politically suffocated than under Saddam

Never in a position to threaten him, the Christian minority did not
suffer Saddam’s full brutality, but most of its members are overjoyed
to be rid of the hardships that marked his rule.

Christian villages were destroyed, churches were ransacked and
thousands emigrated, particularly after the regime closed bars, clubs
and off licences after the 1991 Gulf war to harness support from
conservative Muslims.

But, with Saddam in prison, none of them is rushing home.

“For sure, no one wants to come back,” says Shmaonel Tito Jajo, the
owner of an Assyrian social club in central Baghdad, whose three sons
live abroad.

“Before it was a dictatorship. Now it is lack of security, it’s the

For the Christians, like most Iraqis since the collapse of 30 years
of totalitarianism, the unchecked crime, shootings and bombings of
today are their primary fear and at the heart of any fleeting
nostalgia for the past.

“We have no security, no independence … (we have lost our)
government, stability, our president and our ministries,” said Father
Louis Shabi, parish priest of Baghdad’s St Joseph Chaldean Church.

The 2,500 families who worship at his church pray for peace, he said.

“Saddam’s government was for all Iraqi people. We had someone to talk
to,” about our difficulties, he added.

When asked whether life is better after Saddam than before, Catholic
Patriarch Emmanuelle-Karim Delly, says, “To be frank, no, not at the

He added, “Christians are afraid to go out, as are Muslims. They are
more frightened than before, of car bombs, explosions. We didn’t have
this before.”

Off licences in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra have been
blown up, six or seven Christian social clubs in the capital remain
shut. Parties rarely linger after dusk.

Osama “bin Laden said he would target the Christians. Zarqawi the
Shiites and the Americans,” said Entranik Yagish Artim, 51, a guard
at the Lady of Flowers Armenian Catholic Church.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has a 10-million-dollar price on his head,
is the prime suspect behind bombings in the holy city of Najaf and at
the United Nations in Baghdad.

“So far, thank God, there is no problem between us and the Muslims.
We have lived together for two centuries as brothers,” said Delly.

“What concerns us is terrorism, we’re afraid of people coming from
outside our country to put benzine in our fire,” said Kaisir Odisha
Mikho, a manager in an upmarket hotel in Baghdad’s smart Karrada

For some others, there is no question that they are better off now.

Despite working at the heavily fortified Assyrian Democratic Movement
headquarters, once owned by Saddam’s fedayeen, party official Boutros
Khamis Gilyana says that Christians at last can breathe.

Private schools in Baghdad will begin teaching in Assyrian next year
and he dismissed attacks on liquor shops in Basra as strikes on the
British forces, and customers, based there.

Assyrian parents are also free to name their children freely, after
being forced to used from a trimmed list by the Baathist regime.

But others are wary as followers of the revered Shiite leader, Grand
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, flex their political muscle in the
countdown to self-rule before June 30.

Kurdish demands for federalism in the north are another concern.

“If there was no racism I would say I’m an Iraqi first. Right now
there is a kind of racism, Shiite, Sunni, Christian, Kurdish,” said

Some 750,000 Christians live in Iraq, most of them from the Chaldean
faith, Iraq’s largest Christian denomination, which comes under the
umbrella of the Roman Catholic Church.

Before UN sanctions were imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990,
two million Christians, about nine percent of the population, lived
in Iraq.