Muqtada stirs new storms

Asia Times, Hong Kong
Aug 7 2004

Muqtada stirs new storms
By Sudha Ramachandran

BANGALORE – The recent series of attacks on Christian churches in
Iraq that left 12 people dead and scores injured have drawn Iraq’s
Christian minority into the insurgency, and an exodus of Christians
from Iraq to countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Australia
can be expected.

Meanwhile, Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr – whose supporters are said
to be behind the attacks on Christians – on Thursday declared a
“revolution” against US-led forces in Iraq. This followed a truce of
two months and led immediately to fighting in the holy city of Najaf
and other Shi’ite areas that claimed the lives of at least 50 Iraqis
and an American soldier, and brought down a US helicopter.

The fighting continued on Friday, with US military forces conducting
a second day of air strikes in Najaf. Aircraft bombed positions held
by Muqtada’s Mehdi Army as American soldiers and Iraqi security
forces advanced on the insurgents.

In the attacks on Christians, a wave of well-coordinated bombs ripped
through four churches in Baghdad and two in Mosul last Sunday. Aimed
at having maximum impact, the attacks coincided with the evening Mass
when worshippers would be present in the church in large numbers.

The attacks are the most significant on the community since the fall
of the Saddam Hussein regime 15 months ago. Individual Christians
have been attacked over the past year, but those were more in the
nature of vigilante violence or moral policing by Islamist groups.
Several Christian storeowners have been victimized – some have had
their shops burned and others have been sent letters threatening them
with death. And some have been killed. But these acts of violence and
threats have to do with the fact that most shops selling alcohol or
Western music cassettes in Iraq are owned by Christians.

These latest bombings are said to be the work of supporters of
Muqtada as part of the larger strategy of Islamic militants seeking
to create an Islamic society in Iraq. Their violence is aimed at
enforcing an Islamic code of behavior, including the wearing of the
veil by women and a ban on alcohol.

Several Iraqi Christians have been kidnapped over the past year. This
again has to do with a general perception in Iraq that the Christian
community is wealthy. But not all Christians are, and some of those
who have been abducted have not been able to raise the enormous
ransom demanded by their kidnappers.

Because of their religion, and the fact that many Iraqi Christians
speak English or have relatives abroad, there is also a perception
that Christians are pro-American and that they are supporters of the
US occupation of Iraq. This perception has proved costly to the Iraqi
Christian community.

Some of the Christians who have been murdered over the past few
months are believed to have been working with the occupation force,
providing intelligence or simply providing services as launderers,
interpreters, supplying groceries and so on.

The Iraqi Christian community, concentrated around Baghdad and in the
northern cities of Kirkuk, Mosul and Irbil, is one of the oldest in
the world. The 800,000-strong Christian community constitutes 3% of
Iraq’s population. Most Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean
denomination. Other denominations include the Assyrians, who
constitute a sizable section, Catholic and Orthodox Syriacs, as well
as Catholic and Orthodox Armenians.

The Christian community in Iraq has not suffered general persecution
as such. But it has been at the receiving end of violence from time
to time, usually in periods of transition. In 1932, for instance,
when Iraq gained independence from the British Empire, hundreds of
Assyrian Christians were slaughtered by the Iraqi military. Their
villages were destroyed, their houses, shops and churches burned. The
Assyrian Christian collaboration with the British colonial power is
said to have triggered the violence.

Iraqi Christians consider themselves generally well treated under
Saddam’s largely secular rule. Some Christians even rose to top
positions in government – former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz is
one example. The Saddam Hussein government is also said to have kept
anti-Christian violence under check. But as part of the “relocation
programs”, which sought to create Arab majorities near strategic
oilfields, Christians, too, suffered. Christians living in the
oil-rich areas were among the communities that were forced to move
out. But Christians did not suffer the kind of persecution that the
Shi’ites or the Kurds did. The Ba’ath Party did not consider the
Christians as threatening and so allowed them considerable religious
freedom in return for their political submission.

The exodus of Christians from Iraq grew in the 1990s, especially
after the Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions thereafter.
According to a 1987 census, there were about 1.4 million Iraqi
Christians compared with about 800,000 today. The fall of the Saddam
Hussein government last year, the weakening of the generally secular
atmosphere, the growing Islamization and the spread of lawlessness
has prompted hundreds to flee.

All Iraqis are suffering on account of the deteriorating security
situation in the country. Iraqis irrespective of their religion have
been targets of violence by insurgents and the occupation forces.
What has led to the heightened feeling of vulnerability among the
Iraqi Christians now is that a sizable section of the Iraqi militants
view the US-led coalition as a Christian crusade and Iraq’s Christian
community as its supporters and collaborators.

Analysts have blamed the recent church bombings on groups with links
to al-Qaeda. They point to similar church bombing by outfits linked
to al-Qaeda in the Philippines, Indonesia and Pakistan as evidence of
this trend.

Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Tawhid and Jihad, which
has al-Qaeda links, has emerged as the foremost suspect for the Iraqi
church bombings. The aim was not only to heighten terror among
Christians and deepen divisions in Iraqi society (as part of an
effort to destabilize society) but also to undermine the US-appointed
interim government. The attacks might also have been aimed at
inflaming anger among President George W Bush’s supporters in the US
Christian Right.

While the coalition forces might be more favorably disposed toward
Iraqi Christians, members of the community have suffered, as have
Iraqi Muslims, on account of random searches, bombings, food and
power shortages, and the daily humiliation that the coalition forces
mete out to Iraqis. At the same time, the Christians are viewed as
collaborators with the “crusader forces”, making them vulnerable to
violence from Iraqis. As the movement for the Islamization of Iraq
gathers momentum, their religious rights – and more worryingly, their
personal survival – is likely to come under further threat. Clearly,
this community is caught in the crossfire.

Sudha Ramachandran is an independent researcher/writer based in
Bangalore, India. She has a doctoral degree from the School of
International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, in New Delhi. Her
areas of interest include terrorism, conflict zones and gender and
conflict. Formerly an assistant editor at Deccan Herald (Bangalore),
she now teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.