03/20/2008, 00.00
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Chaldean Christians, after five years the crestfallen dream of Iraq

by Yawnan Al-Muselly*
Five years after the American invasion of Iraq, we publish the testimony sent to AsiaNews by a Chaldean Christian in Mosul. The community is still in shock over the loss of its pastor, Archbishop Rahho, killed by his kidnappers this month. The questions that still surround what is today the last stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Mosul (AsiaNews) - The Iraqis no longer want freedom and democracy, but only to return at least to the situation in which they lived before 2003.  The expectations we had when, five years ago, we watched the United States army enter Baghdad, have faded away.  Now ours is no longer a country: it has no state structure, ministries, efficient administration, army; the central government does not represent a credible authority, nor does it have the power to take any steps toward reconciliation; the number of internal and emigrant refugees is growing (4.5 million); most of the population lives without access to basic services: some areas have electricity for only two hours a day; the education and health systems are collapsing; it is no longer possible to rebuild even a wall or a bridge without these becoming targets for bombs, and the labourers who work on them are themselves in the crosshairs.

In 2003, Iraq had been under embargo for 13 years, and at the moment of the invasion it was already a country under stress. What we were hoping for was to pick ourselves up and move forward, not fall further down.  Of course, it is an exaggeration to speak of nostalgia for the time of Saddam.  Even for the Christian community, which some maintain was often among the "favourites" of the rais.  The Christians, it is true, did not suffer the extermination campaigns reserved for the Shiites and the Kurds, but only because we were and are a more "manageable" community: our faith rejects violence and armed conflict, and, as a minority, even if we were opposed to Baathist policies, we always kept a low profile.  As today, we were the most vulnerable community.  But unlike today, we did not feel like foreigners in our own land. Tareq Aziz, a Christian and the vice president under Saddam, was among the leaders of the country only because from the very beginning he had been in the first ranks of the Al-Baath party's struggle for power, and certainly not because of his religious affiliation.  The last years of Saddam's dictatorship were characterised by a ferocious anti-Western campaign, in which the ban was reintroduced against using non-Arabic names, and therefore also Christian names.  The biggest problem, then as now, was missionary activity.  If the authorities found out that a priest had baptised a Muslim, he lost all of his rights and even his signature was no longer valid for any sort of document.  The Baath party had banned all private instruction, and the Church had seen the nationalisation of all its schools.  This is a phenomenon that also struck the theology faculty of Al-Hausa Al-Elmia, run by the Shiites.

Under the current conditions, no one can say what is best for Iraq.  The mistakes and failures of the Bush administration are before the eyes of all.  Either the withdrawal of American troops or their continued presence represents a wound for our people.  The topic of Iraq has passed into second place even in the United States presidential campaigns.  It is clear that the United States does not know what to do.  Nor did Washington have any idea five years ago.  I have seen with my own eyes the destruction of all state property, of offices, ministries, museums, libraries.  During the first days after the fall of Saddam, it was enough to write "private property" on a wall and no one would touch it, but everything else was savagely ransacked.  The Iraqi army was sent home with all of its weapons, and with the desperation that unemployed men can harbour in a country at war.

The chaos in Mosul might have been avoided

Under Saddam's demographic policies, Mosul became a Sunni majority city.  The Islamic fundamentalists there have always had strong anti-Christian sentiments, but these were kept at bay by the regime: the government was secular, and religious parties were banned.  Now the city is 90% out of the control of the authorities, and is referred to as an "Islamic state", with the Christians forced to choose between the payment of the "compensation tax" for non-Muslims, flight, or death.  Women have to wear the veil, and kidnappings are the order of the day.  The kidnapping and killing of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was found on March 13, demonstrates that there is a genuine plan in the city to force us to flee.

In 2003 in Mosul, the commander of the 101st Airborne Division was General David Petraeus, who immediately began projects of reconstruction, and started to work to gain the support of the civilians.  He came a number of times to the archbishop's residence, where he met with the local religious leaders.  Terrorism did not disappear, but it lost some of its followers, and the population began to oppose fundamentalism.  But he was called back to the United States, and then sent back to Iraq in 2004, assuming command of the American troops in the country in 2007.  With the successes that his "surge" has brought to Baghdad, and of which everyone speaks now.  Why was he not permitted to continue his work in Mosul five years ago? It is a question worth considering, and one that demands a response.

Before the war, Christians in Iraq were 3 percent of the population, about a million in all.  Now, according to unofficial estimates, the community has fallen by half: to about 400,000-500,000 faithful, of whom the Chaldeans are still the majority.

*A Chaldean Christian in Mosul

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