Anguished Christians Flee to Syria

DAMASCUS – George Lutfi’s voice trembled with emotion as thought back of Iraq and his family there. The 32-year-old deacon of the Chaldean Solaqa Church in Baghdad fled to Syria last week after the bombings at churches in Baghdad and Mosul that killed at least 11 people.

"I can do nothing but cry and pray to God to save my family," he said. "It is really hard to imagine what might happen." Lutfi, who left Damascus alone, is trying to bring his wife and three children to Syria. He struggled with feelings of anger, fear and uncertainty. And with guilt that he was safe in Syria while his family may not be as safe in Baghdad.

Scared of lawlessness and the crumbling secular atmosphere within Iraq, thousands of Christians have fled to Syria. Saddam Hussein had enforced secularism with often brutal purges of Islamic groups. Now Christians fear the day might come when they are no longer welcome in Iraq.

"Iraq is my country," Lutfi said. "It is my land. I drank from the rivers of that country and my heart is in Iraq." But now he does not want to return.

Khalil Massouh, a refugee from Mosul says "the pressure comes from Muslim extremists, not from the interim Iraqi government, which has a Christian as minister of immigration and refugees."

The bombings during mass last Sunday evening were the first significant strike on Iraq’s Christians, who make up about five percent of Iraq’s 25 million people. A previously unknown group, the Committee of Planning and Follow-up in Iraq claimed responsibility for the bombings, and warned more attacks would follow.

Islamic militants have asked Christian owners of liquor stores to close down their businesses. They have also threatened Christians who run beauty salons and shops selling fashionable clothes.

Hundreds of Iraqi Christian families move to Syria and Jordan every day, says Emanuel Khoshaba, a representative of the Iraqi Assyrian Democratic Movement in Syria.

Khoshaba says there are now 10,000 Iraqi Christians in Syria, and 90 percent of them arrived after the Iraqi war began in March last year. Officials could not confirm the estimates because Syrian and Jordanian immigration forms do not ask a person’s religion.

"I had to flee to Syria to escape the threats," says Joseph Kaldo, 41. "This is the first step. I will apply this week to emigrate to Canada, the United States or other Western countries."

John Rabah who has also fled Iraq, cannot believe what is happening now. "We have lived with them (Muslims) for generations, we socialize and work with them on a daily basis," he says. "We sometimes marry them, we both belong to the same nation, and we have always enjoyed the calls to prayer by the muezzins. An integral part of our culture reminds believers that there is only one God, the same God we both worship in our own way. Can you tell me what is going on?"

Senior Muslim clerics and political leaders have united behind Iraq’s Christian community, condemning the attacks as a dangerous escalation of the war and an assault on centuries of coexistence between Christians and Muslims.

Syria’s grand mufti Sheikh Ahmed Kiftaru called the bombings "hideous crimes" that "targeted Iraq’s unity, stability and independence."

Muslim militants have tried to paint the struggle within Iraq as a war between "true believers and infidels." They have succeeded at some places, but such groups have never succeeded in Syria. Christians in Syria have never been persecuted, and have no fear they could become a proxy target for those angry with the West.

Comprising almost 12 percent of Syria’s 17 million population, Christians have adopted many Muslim traditions such as the greeting ‘salaam aleikum’ (‘peace be upon you’). They also use Arabic names such as Sami, Samir or Bassam.

Christians within Iraq include the Chaldean-Assyrians who are the majority, Armenians, Syrian Catholics and the Syrian Orthodox.