09/10/2004, 00.00
IRAQ - VATICAN
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Christian refugees are coming home, says Iraqi ambassador to Vatican

Iraqi President al-Yawar meets Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi in Rome today.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – "Many Christians who recently left Iraq are coming back," Albert Yelda, Iraq's ambassador designate to the Holy See, is quoted as saying in the Washington Times. "They are settling in the country's northern, Kurdish areas. They could move back to Baghdad when the situation in the city is safer," he added.

"This [the five church attacks of August 1] was the work of foreign terrorists," Mr Yelda said. "Iraq's Muslim leaders do not want us to leave. Christians enjoy their highest respect."

In the country there are about 800,000 Christians in a population of 25 million people. They "are the descendants of the original inhabitants of present-day Iraq," the Iraqi diplomat stressed. Many were terrified of staying after five churches were bombed earlier this month, but now the situation is changing."

In addition to Christians who fled in early August, Christians who escaped or were forced into exile by Saddam Hussein's regime are returning from Europe and Australia. Albert Yelda himself spent much of his adult life as a refugee. Whilst officially under house arrest at age 16 he fled Saddam's regime to Britain. "Saddam Hussein was carrying out a campaign of cultural genocide," Mr. Yelda used to say during his stay in London. In the British capital he was one of the leaders of the Iraqi National Congress, the largest opposition movement in exile.

Iraqi Christians are also returning from the US, in particular from Chicago and Detroit, where the largest US community lives (around 150,000 people). "Physicians, lawyers and teachers willing to participate in the reconstruction of their society are returning," he said, "business people willing to invest in Iraq are coming back, too".

Christian emigration from Iraq is not a recent phenomenon. It is not the consequence of the August attacks, but is "a curse that has plagued Iraqi society for a long time," said Mgr Jean-Benjamin Sleiman, Latin Archbishop of Baghdad. In the country's ongoing crisis, Archbishop Sleiman points out, Christians can play the role of "peaceful mediators" because "they do not have any specific political demands, other than the reestablishment of security and the government's authority".

Joseph Yacoub, a Chaldean Christian and French expert on Middle Eastern Christianity, agrees. According to him, "Christians in Iraq still play an important role. In the commission that will draw up the country's new constitution there are Christian representatives. In the interim legislative council there are four Christians". For Mr Yacoub, "however small the various Churches may be, they are important in bridging the gap between the numerous groups that make up Iraq's highly fragmented society. Despite threats and attacks Christians can encourage a dialogue and favour a climate of sharing among Iraq's various cultures and religions. And this can only profit the whole society". (LF)

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