By Leila Fadel and Ali al-Qeisy
Thursday, November 18, 2010; A12
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.'â"
There are an estimated 500,000 Christians in Iraq, but minorities, including Christians, make up a "disproportionately high percentage of registered Iraqi refugees," the report said.
Without tribes or militias to protect them, minority communities are among the most vulnerable here. A fledgling Iraqi Security Force plagued by corruption - and, in some cases, infiltration by militias and extremist groups - has failed to protect minority communities and many other Iraqis.
The commission recommended that the secretary of state list Iraq as a "country of particular concern" for international religious freedom this year.
Yonadem Kanna, an Assyrian legislator in Iraq's parliament, said that leaving is not the answer and insisted that many are staying. He noted that bombs targeting Muslims just days after the attack on the Our Lady of Salvation killed more people. And he complained about European countries that have urged Iraqi Christians to emigrate.
"There are international voices trying to pull us out, and in tandem, these attacks are pushing us out. I say shut up and let us live in our country," Kanna said. "This was timed for the formation of the government, the extremists are attacking everybody, especially the most vulnerable people and especially the easy targets that can capture the attention of the world."Church remains open
Despite the violence, Shasha, the priest, said the church doors will never close. When the bombs hit Christian homes last week, 15 families came to sleep at the church for safety before fleeing to the north. On Wednesday, the priest gave his final sermon for the dead, at the end of three days of mourning. He stood in front of the robes that two other priests wore that day, the day they were killed while presiding over a Sunday evening Mass.
"The priest must lead to strengthen the faith," he said after the Mass. "If you have faith, it will strengthen you, because death is not the end."
Men he does not know have come to the church and threatened him. He has been told to leave Iraq if he wants to stay safe. But Shasha said he won't, and he hopes others will choose to stay, too.
"I'm staying, even if it means I will become a martyr," he said.
Many have stopped attending services and taken their rosaries off their rearview mirrors. Christian women in more conservative areas of the capital are donning the Islamic headdress to blend in.
"Christians are afraid everywhere, but this does not stop my faith and my goal," Shasha said. "Christianity was spread with 12 people. We only need 12 people."
In another part of town, the mostly Sunni Arab district of Dora, others echoed Shasha's resolute stance.
Last week, a bomb detonated at Hussam Khairi Yousif's house, shattering glass and reducing one room of the Christian family's home to rubble. Muslim neighbors ran to help, then cleaned up the debris with Yousif's family and helped rebuild. This is his home, he said, and he will stay.
"Outsiders want to break the bond between the Iraqi people, and we understand the game," he said. "Why would I leave my home? I have the support of my neighbors and friends who are Muslim. When the terrorists blew up our fence and our room, the Muslims helped us rebuild, not the Christians. Here I'm surrounded with people who love my family and me. I will never leave my country to be a stranger in another."
But others have lost hope.
"I am a stranger in my own land now," said a Christian who was too afraid to share his name. "Why not be a stranger in a strange land now? I don't recognize my country."
Al-Qeisy is a special correspondent.