With numerous attacks against Iraq's Christians in recent weeks including a Halloween day massacre in a Baghdad church, which left 52 dead the country's religious minority fears for its survival within the boundaries of the Middle Eastern nation. Yet, a long way from their native land, many Iraqi Christians are also living in terror in a far more serene place: Stockholm.
Swedish immigration officials have been deporting Iraqi refugees to Baghdad on flights about every three weeks, declaring that some of them have no legitimate claim to political asylum in Sweden. That includes Iraqi Christians a category that does not automatically imply a risk of persecution, according to Swedish guidelines. Of the 80,000 or so Iraqi refugees in Sweden, about 6,000 of them are Christian, according to estimates by the Syriac Orthodox Church in Stockhold. That Swedish interpretation of the main criterion for refugee status under U.N. treaties has spread widespread panic among refugees. "There are hundreds of Iraqis here who are not legal who have simply disappeared," says an Iraqi engineer in Stockholm, a Catholic, who fled Baghdad in 2004 with his family after Islamic militants ordered them to leave their home, or be killed. "The refugees are hiding in churches or basements, working illegal jobs, trying to survive, transferring from place to place."
Sweden is not alone in deporting Iraqis. Under agreements signed with Iraq's government, Britain, Norway and Denmark have also sent back hundreds of Iraqis who fled during the most violent years of the war. Alarmed at the deportations, U.N. refugee officials warned last September that many of the returned Iraqis could face grave dangers back home, or place huge burdens on Iraq's neighbors, were millions of Iraqi refugees have also fled. "Serious risks, including indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom.... are valid reasons for international protection," the U.N. refugee spokesman Adrian Edwards told reporters last September.
The European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg agrees. Last month it sent E.U. governments a letter urging them to suspend the deportation of Iraqis, because of mounting violence in their native land. The Netherlands immediately halted the deportations, while Britain has said it would not force Iraqis to leave, if they petition the European court.
Sweden, on the other hand, appears to have assumed the toughest attitude. On Nov. 2, a Swedish Foreign Ministry official told the European court that the country carefully considers each Iraqi's case. "An applicant may put forward any information that he or she considers relevant to the case," wrote Charlotte Hellner, Deputy Director of the ministry's Department of International Law. "The final assessment... will always be based on individual circumstances in each single case," she wrote, suggesting that there would be no blanket suspension of deportations. Indeed, Sweden is scheduled to fly another batch of Iraqi deportees to Baghdad on Nov. 17.
On Saturday, Swedish clergymen met to organize support for Iraqis in hiding, including raising funds for their living expenses, and finding them families to stay with. "We have to support them financially too," Sweden's Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Abdulahad Shabo told TIME after the meeting. "The government has supported them for a long time, and now we need to do so."
Sweden's deportations are a stark reversal from a few years ago. The country welcomed more Iraqi refugees during the war than any other European country. At one point, anyone fleeing central or southern Iraq was offered state-funded shelter, monthly stipends and food vouchers in Sweden. During the few days TIME spent in early 2007 in the Swedish Migration Office in Stockholm, there was a steady stream of Iraqi families arriving with suitcases. Many had fled Iraq for Syria or Jordan, and then made their way to Sweden on forged European passports, using a well-organized network of smugglers. "We don't turn anyone back," a Swedish immigration official said at the time. "Look at the circumstances they have left."
But that attitude has changed. Sweden now demands that, in order to be granted permanent residency, each family must prove it faces real risks if sent back to Iraq. Since many fled without documents, finding evidence of personal threats has grown immensely complicated. And many whom Sweden has deported in recent months have felt far too scared to remain back in Iraq. "Most of the Christians who are deported are fleeing again to neighboring countries like Syria and Jordan after they land in Baghdad," says Nuri Kino, a freelance journalist in Stockholm, who has spent months tracking Iraqi refugees. Kino says that after examining the files of many Iraqi refugees, he is convinced that Swedish officials have deported some who face real threats in Iraq. "We have gone through hundreds of asylum rejections with lawyers," he says, "and we have seen fatal mistakes being made."