Iraq's substantial Christian population is under the gun:
BAGHDAD - Despite the chaos and sectarian violence raging across Baghdad, Farouq Mansour felt relatively safe as a Christian living in a multiethnic neighborhood in the capital. Then, two months ago, al-Qaida gunmen kidnapped him and demanded that his family convert to Islam or pay a $30,000 ransom. Two weeks later, he paid up, was released and immediately fled to Syria, joining a mass exodus of Iraq's increasingly threatened Christian minority. "There is no future for us in Iraq," Mansour said.
Many churches are now nearly empty, with many of their faithful either gone or too scared to attend. Only about 30 people attended this Sunday's mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in the relatively safe Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah, and only two dozen took communion in the barren St. Mary's Church in the northern city of Kirkuk on Sunday.
As many as 50 percent of Iraq's Christians may already have left the country, according to a report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal monitoring and advisory group in Washington D.C.
"These groups face widespread violence from Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadis, and they also suffer pervasive discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the national government, regional governments, and para-state militias," said the report.
While in Syria, that country's large Christian community fares much better.
Indeed Christians in Syria perceive the actual regime as their protector. Accordingly, Christians find it easy to obtain authorization to repair or build new churches and to pray or have processions in public without harassment. They enjoy more religious freedom than they did under the Ottoman Empire before 1918. Their religion is not mentioned on identity cards. Legislation is entirely secular with the exception of personal status laws that are applied by specific tribunals and vary according to the differing communities. Friday is the official day off, but in consideration for the Christian population, work starts at 10 a.m. on Sunday. All the Christian holidays are official state holidays and members of the clergy are excused from military service. Christians are united behind the regime, particularly since the events in Hama, conscious that it is their protection against a possible Islamic drift.
Talk to the refugees in Damascus, however, and you soon find that one group predominates: the Iraqi Christians. Although they made up only about 3% of the population of prewar Iraq - 700,000 people - under Saddam they were a prosperous minority, symbolised by the high profile of Tariq Aziz, Saddam's Christian foreign minister. Highly educated and overwhelmingly middle class, the Christians were heavily concentrated in Mosul, Basra and especially Baghdad, which before the war had the largest Christian population of any Middle Eastern town or city.
Now at least half of these Christians - around 350,000 people - have fled Bush's new Iraq and its violence, mass abductions and economic meltdown. Wherever I went in Syria I kept running into them - bank managers and engineers, pharmacists and scientists, garage owners and businessmen - all living with their extended families in one-room flats on what remained of their savings, and assisted by the charity of the different churches.
Ironically, you'll never, ever hear neoconservatives and warmongers discuss the fact that 2.2 million Christians are currently living in Syria. It's an inconvenient truth that they'd much rather ignore.
I have no doubt that those who are pushing for regime change in Syria haven't given even the slightest consideration as to where the estimated 2.2 million Christians in Syria would go next if they were to succeed and the country were to be plunged into anarchy or a Sunni fundamentalist regime comes to power. We can only hope that those advocating such a reckless course of action no longer hold sway in the upper reaches of our government.
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