By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
BAGHDAD, April 21 -- At the Rev. Thair Abdal's church, where on Sunday mornings sweet songs of prayer stream from the doorway, the congregation's fear of death leaves the sanctuary half-filled.
"It's very clear," Abdal said. "Like the light of day, you cannot hide it."
Guards with AK-47 assault rifles man the heavy gates outside. Priests remove their black robes and white collars when they travel in the city.
Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically since last year, but members of the country's Christian denominations say they are increasingly under threat.
In March, Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul's Chaldean community, was found dead after being abducted. This month, Youssef Adel, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, was fatally shot in a drive-by attack in Karrada, one of Baghdad's safest neighborhoods and home to Abdal's Holy Catholic Assyrian Church.
Dozens of churches, monasteries and other buildings have been firebombed, looted or occupied by Muslims since June 2004, according to Assyrian church leaders. Christian relief organizations describe the plight of Iraqi Christians as "ethnic cleansing."
Most Christians in Iraq are Chaldeans, members of an Eastern Rite denomination that recognizes the pope's authority. Other sizable denominations include the Assyrian Catholic Church, which traces its roots to the 1st century. Iraqi Christians are also affiliated with the Church of the East, the Anglican Church and other Protestant faiths.
Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush said that in a meeting last week they discussed the "precarious state" of Christian communities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The Iraqi Christian population numbered 1.35 million before the Persian Gulf War in 1991, according to politicians who cite government statistics from the time. That number has dropped by at least half, according to politicians, priests and religious organizations, mainly because Christians have fled the country in the years since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Iraqi Christians say they are the victims of kidnappings, harassment on the job and religious suppression by Islamic extremists and criminal opportunists. "The Christians don't have armies," said Joe Obayda, who leads the British-based relief group Iraqi Christians in Need. "They don't have militias and they are not vying for power."
Obayda said many Christians are applying to remain in Jordan and Syria and have lost hope of going home.
"They are stuck. They don't think they can go back," he said. "They don't think it will be secure for them in the foreseeable future."
The Rev. Dawood Ougin heads a small Church of the East parish in Baghdad that now has 120 families, down from 250.
He said every Christian business executive he knows has been threatened, kidnapped or attacked. "The Christian is weak. He has no tribe," he said.
"If you kidnap one person, everybody in the family will leave," Ougin said. One man's son, a toddler, was kidnapped for two weeks, he said. The family had to pay $30,000 ransom to get the child back. "After that, 18 people left to Jordan, fled," he said.
"They sell everything to live in horrible conditions in Syria, Jordan and Turkey," Ougin said. "It was better for them to stay here in Iraq and to build a new Iraq."
Ougin said Christians from his community immediately reached out to American officers after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and sat on U.S.-backed neighborhood councils. But he said Americans had little understanding of Iraq, an ignorance that has led to problems.
"We have tried to help build our country; instead it's a disaster," he said. "This is my country. This is my culture. This is my place."
Abdal also blames Americans for the sectarian problems in Iraq.
He said the U.S. government's early emphasis on allocating power in Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines only heightened tensions.
Abdal, a tall 29-year-old, said six months ago he received a phone call from a man with an Egyptian accent.
The man said he was with a group that wanted to meet Abdal and asked if he was a priest. Abdal, in fear, told the man he was a church cleaner.
The caller said to Abdal, "One day Peter will come and take you."
Abdal said the would-be kidnappers threatened to put him on a cross and crucify him. "At that moment I don't say I was frightened. At that moment I said I must face my faith. I asked his name," Abdal said. The caller said his name was Malak, Arabic for angel.
Abdal said he peered deeper into his faith.
"Jesus Christ, at the last meal before they put him on the cross, said it's true that the body is weak but the soul is strong," Abdal said. "As the people's servant, I believe that one day I will suffer the same fate as the teacher. That doesn't mean this church is thirsty for blood. But we have a real principle. We want to announce to the people that the church is existing. It has existed and it will exist."
Abdal's telephone call came at the start of a major kidnapping campaign targeting priests. Many of those kidnapped were his friends and had his name in their cellphones.
"Now there is no kidnapping," Abdal said. "There is killing."
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri and other Washington Post staff in Baghdad contributed to this report.