Iraqi Christians flee after violence

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By Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy
Thursday, November 18, 2010

IN BAGHDAD Our Lady of Salvation church, once a vibrant center of prayer in this predominantly Muslim city, is nearly empty now. Last month, in a more than four-hour siege, gunmen shot their way in andkilled at least 58 people, sending a message that Christians, among many others, are not safe in Iraq.

The names of the dead are pasted on the floor in the center of the church and surrounded by lighted candles. But the window glass is missing, destroyed by blasts and gunfire, and craters dot the ground - all reminders of the four suicide bombers who carried out the deadly attack along with other gunmen.

"Yes, we may shed some tears. We may have sadness, but we will not give up," the Rev. Mukhlis Shasha preached to about 50 people during one of a series of special Catholic Masses for the dead this week. Some that came to pray, sitting against plaster walls gouged with bullet holes, were not Christians, but neighbors who had come to pay their respects.

Just a few weeks ago, before the Oct. 31 massacre, more than 350 people regularly attended Sunday Masses here. But now, many from this ancient Syriac Catholic community have fled. Others are too afraid to attend Mass in a place they think is being targeted by extremist groups and militias that have plagued the country during more than seven years of war.

"People tell me the Bible says if the land does not want us we must leave," Shasha said. "I tell them you have to stand tall in these lands. If we all leave the country, who will remember this massacre, who will witness the resurrection of this church again?"

Further violence

Since the attack, Christian homes across the capital have been hit by bombs, two Christian men were killed in Mosul and Christian families have made their way out of the country or fled to the much safer northern Iraq, where Kurdish security forces control the area. Christians have not been the only victims of violence in the past month, but the attacks against them are disproportionate to the size of the vulnerable minority.

The new wave of displacement could devastate an already dwindling Christian community. Some worry that if something doesn't change, there will soon be no Christians left in Iraq.

Political and religious leaders from across ethnic and sectarian lines have called on Christians to stay. But many Christians said that after years of violence and devastation, they must go. More than 46 churches and monasteries have been bombed since the start of the Iraq war. While many more mosques and Islamic shrines have also been hit, Christian worshipers said this week that the Iraqi government has shown that it can't keep them safe.

"They can't protect us. Let them protect themselves first," said Waleed Jamil Butrous, a parishioner who survived the shooting, huddled in a back room with one man and 10 women and children. The politicians "are not men. We are the men. We were the ones here, who go out with no guards. The nation will lose the Christian community. I'm leaving, others are leaving."

Outside, Federal Police are now stationed to protect the church.

"We're not scared for ourselves," added his wife, Sahera Marzana. "We're scared for our children."

According to a 2010 reportfrom the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, "only half of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to remain in the country, with Christian leaders warning that this flight may mean 'the end of Christianity in Iraq.' "


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