Syria becoming haven for Iraq’s Christian minority

Associated Press Worldstream
August 10, 2004 Tuesday 9:51 AM Eastern Time

Syria becoming haven for Iraq’s Christian minority

by BASSEM MROUE; Associated Press Writer


A banner draped across a wall of a Damascus church commemorated a
long-ago massacre in neighboring Iraq, while hundreds of worshippers
praying below worried about more recent violence that is driving
Iraqi Christians from their homeland.

“We offer these prayers for the souls of those who were killed in our
brotherly Iraq,” said a Syrian priest before reading the names of
seven people killed Aug. 1 when suspected Islamic militants set off a
series of explosions at five churches in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad
and the northern city of Mosul. In addition to the seven dead, dozens
were wounded in the first major assault on Iraq’s Christian minority
since Saddam Hussein’s regime was overthrown in April 2003.

Even before the church bombings, Christians reporting harassment by
Islamic fundamentalists had begun streaming out of Iraq, many to
neighboring Syria. Syria’s relaxed visa rules for Arabs and its
geographical and cultural proximity to Iraq have attracted thousands
of Iraqis, Muslim as well as Christian, seeking to escape chaos at
home. A disproportionate number of the refugees, though, have been

Benjamin Chamoun showed a reporter a handwritten death threat signed
the “Islamic Resistance Group” he said he had received for working as
a driver at a U.S. military base. He quit three months ago, but at
first didn’t consider leaving his homeland. Then came the church

“There is nothing worse than attacking churches,” added Chamoun, who
is a member of the Chaldean-Assyrian church, the major Christian sect
in Iraq.

“We, as Christians, are not persecuted by Muslims. Our problem is
with Muslim extremists,” said the 35-year-old Chamoun as he sat in a
lounge furnished with six plastic chairs and a table in an apartment
in the Jaramana area on the outskirts of Damascus. Jaramana has
become an Iraqi Christian neighborhood.

Chamoun, who fled with his wife, two daughters and son, hopes to
emigrate to Australia. If he doesn’t get a visa, he said he will try
find a job in Syria and wait for the situation to improve back home.

Under Saddam, even in the later years when the Iraqi leader attempted
to rally support by waving the Islamic banner, Christians were free
to practice their religion and lived relatively peacefully among the
Muslim majority. Some, like former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, even
rose to prominence.

History has seen other periods of sectarian tension and violence in
Iraq. The Sunday Iraqis in Syria were praying for those killed in the
church bombings fell a day after Martyrs Day, one of the most
important days on the Chaldean-Assyrian calendar. It marks the 1933
massacre by the Iraqi government of Christians demanding more rights.
Chaldean-Assyrians say some 3,000 people, including women and
children, were killed then in Simele, a town in northern Iraq.

“Aug. 7 will remain a symbol of honor for our people and their
national identity,” read a banner still hanging Aug. 8 during Sunday
services at the Chaldean-Assyrian Abraham Church in Damascus.

Islamic extremism has been on the rise in Iraq in the chaos since
Saddam’s fall. Some trace this to the arrival of foreign Muslim
militants drawn to Iraq by the chance to attack Americans.

Iraqi Christians in Syria speak of Muslim extremists back home
forcing even Christian women to wear Islamic veils or having their
liquor shops burned – Islam frowns on alcohol.

The Iraqi Embassy in Damascus and the United Nations High
Commissioner for Refugees do not have exact figures of how many Iraq
Christians have entered the country, but say the number of Iraqis in
general is estimated at about 250,000.

“We have seen that Iraqis from all sections of the Iraqi society have
been approaching our office,” said Ajmal Khybari, senior officer at
UNHCR office in Damascus. “But in the past two or three months we
have seen an increase of Iraqi Christians approaching our office, a
total of 20 percent of Iraqis approaching our office.”

Christians make up just 3 percent of Iraq’s total population of about
25 million. The major groups include Chaldean-Assyrians and

Some of the Iraqi Christians who have approached the U.N. refugee
agency in Syria “are complaining that they are being harassed by
various groups, mainly extremists groups,” Khybari said.

In one sign of how many Iraqi Christians are in Syria, an Iraqi
church leader traveled to Damascus to mark Martyrs Day.

“We are against the immigration of Christians,” Archbishop Touma
Iramia Gewargis, head of the Archbishopric of Ninewa and Duhuk in
Iraq, said during his visit. “We were against it in the past and are
in the present and future. We want to protect our nation because we
are first-class citizens in Iraq.”