Iraq's Persecuted Christians

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SAMANTHA APPLETON / AURORA FOR TIME

Layla Istifan, 23, prays in her local church days after her brother was killed. She and her family have been repeatedly threatened because of their Christianity

When Keis Isitfan headed home from work one recent night, he had reason to watch his back. As a laundry worker for the U.S. embassy inside Baghdad's green zone, he risked being attacked by insurgents targeting Iraqis who work for the U.S. But there was another source of anxiety: Isitfan, 27, is a Christian and, like others of his faith, is facing growing hostility from hard-line Islamic groups who accuse Christians of being sympathetic to the Western occupiers.

As Isitfan was driving home on Sept. 7, his worst fears came true. After he left the green zone, two cars pulled up alongside, and attackers inside opened fire. Four bullets hit Isitfan, who died on the street. His family, convinced Isitfan was killed for his faith, plans to flee the country. "Christians in Iraq are weak," says his sister Layla, a translator for the U.S. embassy. "All they can do is leave here, like we will do."


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Between 10,000 and 30,000 of Iraq's 800,000 Christians have fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, according to Christian groups in Baghdad. Although Christians make up only about 3% of Iraq's 25 million people, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has said they account for about 20% of the refugees fleeing Iraq for Syria. They are escaping a climate of violence and a surging Islamic radicalism that have made the practice of their faith a deadly enterprise.

The worst moment came on Aug. 1 when Islamic insurgents — most likely connected with terrorist leader Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi, according to Iraqi government officials — attacked five churches in Baghdad and Mosul with car bombs, killing a dozen people. While Muslim authorities in Iraq widely condemned those attacks, local Christians say security has continued to deteriorate. Says Layla Isitfan: "If I can't go to church because I'm scared, if I can't dress how I want, if I can't drink because it's against Islam, what kind of freedom is that?"

Like the larger insurgency targeting U.S. troops and the new Iraqi government, the campaign against Christians appears to be becoming more organized. Sa'ad Jusif, a Chaldean-Assyrian Christian, was kidnapped on Sept. 8, according to Dr. Munir Mardirosian, who heads a political party for Armenian Catholics in Baghdad. His captors showed him a list of 200 names, most of them Christian, and demanded to know where they lived. When he refused, he was hung from the ceiling and beaten with iron pipes. He was released only when his family paid a $50,000 ransom on Sept. 13. He left the next day for Jordan. Says Mardirosian: "If they opened the doors to America or Australia, I can say there would not be one Christian left in Iraq."

The violence in Iraq threatens one of the world's oldest Christian communities, dating back 2,000 years. The population includes Chaldean Assyrians (Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize the Pope's authority); Assyrians, who form an independent church; Syrian Catholics; and Armenian Catholics. Under Saddam, Christians coexisted more or less amicably with the Muslim majority. Easter services were broadcast on state television, and Christians were allowed to own and operate liquor stores.

Christians today keep a low profile. While most of the anti-Christian violence has been committed by a small group of Islamic extremists, Christians say they are encountering rising anger among their Muslim neighbors. Layla Isitfan says taxi drivers have insulted her when they realized she was Christian, in some cases saying all Christians should be shot and killed. At work, she wears a Muslim head scarf and tells colleagues that she is Muslim. Raja Elias, a Syrian Catholic in Baghdad, says that recently a neighbor began to dump garbage on her front porch. When Elias complained, the neighbor said, "You are a Christian, and I can put it inside your house if I want to."

With so many other problems to contend with, the new Iraqi government hasn't done much to protect Christians. Businesses traditionally owned by Christians, such as liquor stores and beauty salons, have been regularly vandalized by Islamic fundamentalists who some suspect may be loyal to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Elias, who ran a dental clinic in central Baghdad before the war, recently asked the Health Ministry to reopen it. But she was told to work in Sadr City, the seething Shi'ite slum dominated by al-Sadr's men. So her clinic remains shuttered. "I think they will come for me sooner or later," she says.

For Iraqis like Elias, the best option is to leave. Many Iraqi Christians say their reversal of fortune has been especially disappointing given the backing the Bush Administration receives from evangelical Christians. "Why did the U.S. come here?" asks Mardirosian, the Armenian-Catholic leader. "To protect the Christians or allow others to kill them?"