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IRAQ: Christians live in fear of death squads

BAGHDAD, 19 October 2006 (IRIN) - Julie Carlo, 36, has tried to leave Iraq for Jordan several times to be with her parents, but hasn't been allowed in by the Jordanian authorities. The reason for her desperation to leave is her religion. She is Christian and has been threatened by Islamic militants.

“Recently, life for Christians in Iraq has turned into a horror movie,” Carlo said. “I will leave everything here [and] even if I do not have anything to eat there [Jordan], it is better to die from hunger than be beheaded.”

Carlo is one of thousands of people from the minority group who are receiving death threats and are living in fear. Threats have increased since Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Catholic Church, made a speech on 12 September that included what were perceived to be disparaging comments about Islam. This caused fury among segments of the Muslim community worldwide.

The repercussions of the Pope’s speech continue to reverberate in Iraq, bringing a new level of threat to an already shrinking Christian population. Although the Pope apologised soon after for the comments he made, the damage is seemingly irreparable in Iraq.

“There were cases of Christians being killed but it was part of the ongoing violence in our country and not a direct threat against our community,” Carlo said. “We have been clearly advised through letters and intimidating leaflets that all Christians should leave Iraq because the punishment is going to be worse in coming days.”

Several Islamic groups had threatened to kill Christians unless the Pope apologised.

“Their leader [the Pope] has verbally abused and offended our religion and the Prophet. Unfortunately, he did not analyse the consequences of his speech. Our country is an Islamic land and they [Christians] will have to rely on the Pope’s charity from now on,” said Abu Jaffar, an Islamic extremist from Muhammad's Army, a Sunni insurgent group.

Carlo and her family have lost three of their relatives over the past two weeks and she received a threat on Monday.

“They [the extremists] do not care about who we are or what age we are, they are furious and want us out. The Pope should have thought better before offending one of the biggest religions in the world,” Carlo said.

Christian community shrinking

The last Iraqi census, in 1987, counted 1.4 million Christians, but many left during the 1990s when economic sanctions were imposed on the country.

According to the local Christians Peace Association (CPA), about 700,000 Christians remain in Iraq, making up about 3 percent of the population.

Church attendance has decreased considerably in Iraq and at least 60 percent of Baghdad’s churches have closed after receiving threats from extremists since the Pope’s speech.

“Less than 20 percent of the devout [Christian community] who were attending prayers are continuing to come to the church. Thousands have left in the past weeks to other countries and we are sure that soon this church is going to be forced to close too,” said Reverend Zayya Edward, the pastor of the Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad.

Many Christians have taken refuge in the town of A’ain Kawa, a few kilometres from the city of Arbil in the Kurdish north, which has become the main centre for internally displaced Christians.

There are no official numbers of how many are taking refugee in the area, but religious leaders say the number is in the thousands.

In the capital, the Dora and Karrada districts used to be home to the Christian community but are now empty. Christians in Mosul and Kirkuk, in the north, have also witnessed dozens of killings and threats.

Beheaded and dismembered

On Wednesday, the beheaded and dismembered body of a priest from the Syriac Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary was found in the northern city of Mosul.

Father Boulos Iskander, 59, was kidnapped several weeks ago and his family was in constant contact with the abductors who demanded a ransom payment as well as the publication of a rejection of the Pope’s comments on Islam.

His death has increased fear within the Christian community, who are calling for international assistance to help them leave the country.

“We urge the international Christian community to help us to leave Iraq before we have the same fate that Father Boulos had,” said Lucas Barini, a spokesman for CPA.

Iraq's Ministry of Human Rights has called on all religious groups to put aside differences and help the local Christian community.

"The main reason for such targeting is merely religious and in this case religious leaders should intervene to prevent more violence and forget their beliefs and remember that everyone is a human being," said Hummam Dairi, public officer in the Ministry of Human Rights.

"Our ministry has asked for international support and we hope that we soon can bring more stability and safety to this community," Dairi added.

In the meantime, Christians who can not leave Iraq make do the best they can. Christian parents have stopped their children from attending schools and universities after many fellow students made verbal threats against Christian students.

Christian women have started to wear ‘Abayas’ (the traditional full-length cloak that Muslim women wear) and head scarves to prevent them from being distinguished from Muslim women.

“We now are being forced to be Christians just in our heart because externally we should be like Muslims, even though we don’t have anything to do with the sectarian violence” Carlo said.

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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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