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Iraqi Christians Look For Protection From The Storm

Country/Region: IRAQ

As the UN launches its campaign to raise money for the refugees of the Iraq conflict, most attention is focused on Sunni and Shia families forced to leave their home towns by sectarian violence. The fate of non-Muslim minorities, particularly Christians, deserves equal attention. The Iraqi Christian population has fallen to a third of its level of twenty years ago. As Barnabas Aid reports, those who have fled fear they may never be able to return to their homeland.

Daily struggle

As the dawn light struggles to illuminate the tiny one-roomed apartment in a run-down suburb of Damascus, George* begins the daily struggle to provide for his grown-up daughters. A member of Iraq's Christian minority, he arrived here in late December, bringing just the clothes on his back and the family he so nearly lost.

Until late 2006 he lived in Baghdad. A widower and father of three, he divided his time between his work as an electrician and caring for his eldest daughter, who has terminal cancer. Then one morning the masked militia arrived at his door. They sacked and looted the house, took all his savings, and told him to leave the country if he wanted to live. George had no reason to doubt that they would carry out their threat. He has seen many Christians in his neighbourhood die at the hands of the militant gangs.

Not far away Mariam awakes in the small room she shares with her family and another couple. An Assyrian Christian in her late 20s, she used to live in Mosul. When her husband disappeared in April 2006, she feared the worst. His body was later discovered, half-buried under rotting rubbish on wasteland outside the city, riddled with bullets. Unable to provide for her children and fearing for their lives, Mariam fled with her three children, aged 14, 11 and 10, taking their meagre savings and what they could carry.

Such stories are typical among the thousands of Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria's capital. As running battles between Sunni and Shia insurgents engulf Iraq, the Christian minority is being caught in the middle. Iraqi Christians numbered some 1.4 million in the early 1980s, concentrated in Mosul, Basra and Baghdad. Today that figure stands at around 500,000. Estimates suggest that anything up to 350,000 Iraqi Christians have fled since 2003 alone. Most who have left Iraq now live as refugees in neighbouring countries, with Syria hosting the largest number of Iraqi Christian refugees.

Climate of fear

The Iraqi refugees that teem through Damascus and other cities have run from the climate of fear that pervades their country. Christians are particularly vulnerable because of their religion. To many Sunni and Shia militia living in Iraq, Christians are the enemy within. Militants see an automatic link between Iraqi Christians and the "Christian" West, and so hold them responsible for the invasion and subsequent hardships, as well as the previous Persian Gulf War of 1991 and UN sanctions.

Militant gangs target Christians from all walks of life. Whatever the motive - financial, religious, territorial - they have one thing in common; they want the Christians out of Iraq. The anonymous notes posted to Christian families in Mosul in December say it all: "Leave, crusaders, or we will cut off your heads."

Dwindling funds

For those that manage to leave Iraq, life as a refugee is a continual struggle for survival. Neighbouring countries may provide shelter, but they are not equipped to offer a living to refugees. Living space in the cities hosting refugees comes at a premium, and the costs of basic necessities rise almost daily. Most refugees leave Iraq with nothing in the way of possession, and what savings they have disappear rapidly on food and rent. Mariam and George are lucky to have any kind of roof over their heads; all around them, entire families are living in their cars as they drive from place to place, looking for shelter and work.

Work in particular is not easy to come by. Whilst granting refuge to those fleeing Iraq, neighbouring countries are not providing them with work permits. When she can, Mariam picks up work as a cleaner to try to earn enough money to keep a roof over her children. George is not so fortunate. Along with hundreds of others, he relies on charity and the local church community to keep a roof over his family. Without that, he will have nothing.

Protection from the storm

Leaving the country is not an option for all Iraqi Christians. Getting out of the country is expensive and difficult; many do not have the funds to get across the border. Others, understandably, simply do not want to leave their homeland. Iraq, and particularly the churches in the North, where there have been Christians since the first century AD. Many see it as unforgivable to leave this land so rich in Christian history.

For Christians remaining in Iraq, the question of where they can go for protection is difficult. Some are heading to the Kurdish area in the north of the country, where they are being given a cautious welcome by Kurdish leaders. With an autonomous Kurdistan proposed in the north of the country, Christians and Kurds are talking about providing an area of the Nineveh Plains for Iraqi Christians. Some Christian leaders are optimistic that, in the short tem, they can live here in relative security.

Economic collapse

However, even if such a plan goes ahead, the problems do not end there. With the collapse of Iraqi society has come the collapse of the economy. Finding employment to be able to provide accommodation and food is a major struggle. "Next to security, money and employment are the biggest problems the Christian population face", according to Polous*, a Christian community leader. "Our brothers and sisters abroad cannot work, and rely on charity for their daily needs. Those who remain in Iraq also need food and shelter. Without that, we cannot survive."

Other Christian leaders are wary of a plan to permanently house the Christian minority in the North. One has compared it to moving a patient from a hospital to a hospice. "Sending all Iraqi Christians to the North is the same as sending Christianity in Iraq to die," he says. "We need help to get our Christian brothers and sisters out of the country. Only then will they be safe."

This may get harder as 2007 goes on. With the numbers of Iraqis fleeing the country continuing to rise, neighbouring countries are beginning to sound alarm bells about their continued ability to offer asylum. Both Jordan and Syria indicated in December 2006 that they may be forced to close their borders to refugees, as they do not have the capacity to cope. If this occurs, those Christians left trapped in Iraqi cities with a hostile majority population face a stark future

One thing all leaders do agree on though is that the Christians face a very different danger to the majority Muslim population of the country. As Polous puts it, "The difference is that Sunni and Shia have somewhere in Iraq they can go to. The Shia will always find friends in the South, and the Sunni will find refuge in Anbar and Falluja. For the Christians, there is nowhere else to go where they will be safe. They can only hope and pray that they make the right choice."

* all names have been changed for the safety of the people involved.

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