Mosul (AsiaNews) The Chaldean church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul appears to have become the target of a terror campaign. After attacks that took place at the end of September, a group of men opened fire on the place of worship on 4 and 5 October, injuring one of the guards who is currently in hospital. AsiaNews sources said parishioners believe this violence to be the tail end of Muslim protests against the much debated lecture of Benedict XVI in Germany. But the first attacks on the parish of the Holy Spirit date back to August 2004, that is, months before Cardinal Ratzinger became pope. The truth is that, as Iraqi church figures have already claimed through AsiaNews, the attacks are part of a twofold strategy. On the one hand, there are forces intent on destabilising the country and on the other, there is Islamic fanaticism that wants to "push Christians out of Iraq". And so persecution is taking place on two fronts: blatant, that is, bombs, shootings and video messages (the latest was of the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, who invited followers to "capture some Christian dogs" for Ramadan) and "hidden", consisting of discrimination, persistent threats and kidnappings. The last are becoming ever more frequent, feeding what is nothing less than an industry.
Car bombs, artillery fire, and handmade explosives are the most commonly used tools in terrorist operations that have struck Christian targets so far. Apart from the attacks on the Church of the Holy Spirit (24, 25 September and 4,5 October), a convent of Iraqi Dominican Sisters in Mosul was also recently attacked. On 2 October, the building came under a burst of bullets that did not injure anyone. The garden of the convent, however, was burned.
In the most ferocious attack this year, on Sunday 29 January, a series of co-ordinated blasts near churches and Christian buildings in Kirkuk and Baghdad killed three people and injured nine. Car bombs struck the Catholic Church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin in Kirkuk, the Catholic Church of St Joseph in the capital and the Anglican Church in the area of Nidhal. Then too, the attacks were seen as a Muslim reaction to the "offensive" Muhammad cartoons.
The people claim that the police and national army have never conducted adequate investigations or found the culprits of the violence against Iraqi churches. So communities must defend themselves: now practically every church has at least one guard, usually a young volunteer posted outside the building to watch for the arrival of possible attackers while mass goes on within.
A recent UN report denounced that religious minorities in Iraq "have become regular victims of violence and discrimination, with acts ranging from intimidation to murder." The document said: "Members of the Christian minority are particularly targeted." This is because they are more vulnerable than other communities, without an internal or external political force to defend them. Persecution is carried out not only through strong-armed or symbolic actions. AsiaNews sources have claimed that often, in Iraq, "at work and for public administration purposes, Christians are considered as second-class citizens: it always takes much longer than it would a Muslim to get a document, for example."
In Baghdad, Christian government officials have not left their homes for months after they received heavy threats. Fear reigns in Basra too, in the south, as it does in Mosul in the north. Fundamentalists also target women, who are threatened or even killed for not respecting the Islamic dress code. Kidnapping of lay people and priests is on the rise, and the enormous ransoms requested bring families and entire communities to their knees. "Christians are held to be more well-off than other communities," said Yousef Lalo, assistant to the governor of Mosul. "So people seek to extort as much money from them as possible." Christians themselves say they have now become used to accusations dubbing them as "infidel crusaders" that "echo" throughout cities and towns.
The emigration problem
Out of a population of 27 million Iraqis, Christians account for around 800,000 (3%), divided into various rites and denominations. A 1987 census estimated that members of Christian communities amounted to 1.4 million. The drop is mainly due to growing emigration: around 100,000 have left since the start of the Iraq war in March 2003.
Many go to Jordan. According to UNHCR estimates, in the first four months of 2006, Christians were the largest group of new refugees in Amman. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 44% of Iraqis seeking asylum in Syria are Christians. There is also much migration to Turkey, Sweden and Australia.
Internal displacement towards the more peaceful Kurdistan is also widespread. Karacosh, 67 km from Arbil, until recently had 30,000 residents, more than 90% of them Catholics. Now population figures have climbed to 50,000 following the arrival of many families from Baghdad and Mosul. Security remains a problem: Sarkis Ghajan, a Christian who is the Finance Minister of Kurdistan's regional government, said more than 30 Christian villages had been rebuilt, "but people do not want to return until they feel safe". Ghajan said: "If our friends do not help us now, their friendship will not be worth anything in the future. If things continue like this, Baghdad and Mosul will be emptied of Christians."
Even if in different dimensions, the tragedy facing Iraqi Christians is the same as that afflicting Sunnis and Kurds as well as the Shiite majority. There is no let up in sectarian violence like attacks on mosques. Iraq's Migration Minister said the number of Muslims fleeing Baquba in Diyala province was "on the rise". This is the area hardest hit by clashes after Baghdad.