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No peace for Iraqi Christians

| Sunday, Dec. 23, 2007

ANKAWA, Iraq -- Father Rayan Atto walks in this Christian enclave in northern Iraq, past St. Joseph's Chaldean cathedral with its cross set atop a stepped-pyramid base known as a ziggurat.

He points to newly relocated Babel College, the country's only Christian theological university, while explaining the plight of Iraqi Christians.

"We have many, many young people -- they were killed for any excuse. They were just killed because they were Christians," says Atto, 28, pastor of a Chaldean Catholic parish in the nearby city of Erbil.

"Since the beginning of 2004, the situation got worse ... that was the start of the persecution of the Christians in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul."

Iraqi Christians -- many descended from the oldest Christian communities; many speaking a modern dialect of Aramaic, considered the language of Christ -- are in a precarious state.

They make up some 3 percent of Iraq's population of 27.5 million. Most are Chaldean, an Eastern rite in communion with the Roman Catholic Church; others include Assyrians from the Church of the East, Syriacs, Eastern Orthodox, Armenians, Roman Catholics and Protestants.

In dozens of interviews, displaced Christians tell of murder, kidnapping, rape, robbery.

Some of the violence is committed by street gangs; some is politically motivated, aimed at those working with U.S. forces. But much clearly is targeted against Christians by Muslim extremists, both Sunni and Shia.

By some Chaldean church accounts, half the estimated 1.2 million Iraqi Christians have fled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon or Kurdish-run northern Iraq since 2003.

Michael Youash, an Iraqi-Christian director of the U.S.-based Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, says Christians are "being targeted for their faith ... crushed ... ethnically cleansed from the cities."

"It's a real crisis," he insists, "and it's just getting worse."

A choice to convert or die

Faris Mansour Hanna, 26, knows all too well.

A brown-eyed, dark-haired, lean yet sturdy man with the beginnings of a beard, Hanna was traveling to Baghdad with borrowed money to buy a taxi when he was kidnapped by al-Qaida insurgents. He was blindfolded, bound and forced into car trunks with two other Christians and a Shia Muslim.

"They said, 'We will release you, but we have one condition. You have to convert to Islam,' " Hanna says softly. He refused, so "they beat my face and burned me with cigarettes." He points to scars on one arm, a hand, his left cheek and forehead.

Sitting outside the Chaldean Cultural Center in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah, Hanna removes a dark blue T-shirt to reveal a bullet wound in his back and more scars on his shoulders from being dragged in the street, whipped and beaten with a metal pipe.

"It was two days of torture." He hunches his shoulders and stares into space, smoking a cigarette. "On the second day, they beheaded two of the Christians. ... They said they were working with the Americans as translators."

Knowing they, too, would be killed, the Shia hostage chewed through the cord binding Hanna's hands. Together, they escaped and hid nearby until a U.S. military patrol rescued them.

His story is not unique.

Najla Suleiman, a chemist, moved here with her family when Sunni fighters moved into Baghdad's predominantly Christian neighborhood of Doura.

She recalls the local Chaldean church being taken over, its priest kidnapped: "The terrorists destroyed the church. They took down the cross and made it a mosque.

"... The Christianity, it's gone in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra."

'Revenge wanted'

Only a half-dozen of Baghdad's 30 Chaldean churches remain open, according to Father Atto. Many priests rarely leave their church compounds.

His best friend, Father Ragheed Ganni, a Chaldean priest at Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul, was gunned down with three deacons in June. Ganni had often predicted that "one Sunday will be my end," Atto says sadly.

In October 2006, Father Paulos Eskander of the Syriac Orthodox church in Mosul was kidnapped and beheaded. The killers demanded that his parishioners denounce Pope Benedict's criticism of Islam.

Ceasor Azoz, 23, a mechanical engineer from Baghdad, now lives in a tiny house in Suleimaniyah. He and his father, Janan, 59, a former English teacher, had worked for a U.S. contractor.

Azoz found a message -- "Blood Wanted, Revenge Wanted" -- spray-painted in three-foot letters on the wall of their old home. He fled north last December; the rest of his family followed in August.

"When you are threatened, you feel horrible, you can't feel secure," he explains. "My mother was shaking, my sisters were crying." Many neighbors had been kidnapped, and "all the Christians wanted to leave."

Imad Marbeen Yacoub, 42, worked in a Baghdad liquor store before Shia militiamen forced him -- and, later, his parents -- to leave. They, too, now live in Suleimaniyah.

"I had to pay the jiziyah" -- an ancient Islamic tax once imposed on non-Muslims -- "for three months," he explains.

"The same guys who took alcohol from me in the morning ... threatened me in the evening. They put a pistol on the table and said, 'Your money or your life.' "

Margaret Boya paid $10,000 to free her kidnapped 23-year-old son. Then a note arrived, warning that "you are Christians, you are infidels. You have a pretty girl and we want to take her," Boya recounts, as tears stream down her cheeks.

'Empty of Christians'

Christians in Basra and Mosul are no safer than those in Baghdad.

Hawl Khzaqiya, head of Suleimaniyah's Chaldean center, says the Shiite Mahdi Army threatened Christian families in both cities to "convert or pay the jiziyah. ... They burned the churches, kidnapped women.

"... Now Basra is completely empty of Christians."

A threatening letter with a bullet inside convinced Milad Sadu, 32, to flee Mosul for AnKawa in June 2006.

A Chaldean Catholic, she had always worn the headscarf and long coat required of Muslim women. "In Mosul, the terrorists rule and religion is very strict," she explains.

Over tea, her husband, Samir Younis Hanna, 43, proudly shows commendation letters from U.S. soldiers who frequented his small shop at their base near Mosul. "I am very proud of working with the Americans," he says, watching his year-old daughter, Nour, play with a cross painted to resemble an American flag.

Margaret Daniel, 44, an engineer who left Mosul, says Christians hide their faith.

"Those terrorists, those Muslims, they hate the Christians so much," she says. "They are watching us and they threaten us by telephone. We don't let anyone know we are Christian."

Church bombings in Baghdad and Mosul in 2004 convinced Nina Shea, who directs the Center for Religious Freedom at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, "that Islamic extremists were going to do some ethnic cleansing against the Christians and drive them out.

"They don't have militias, they don't have tribal networks, they don't have foreign powers, they don't have anybody to champion them," Shea, a human-rights lawyer, says of Iraqi Christians.

"To me, it is astonishing and shocking to watch this unfold."

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