A legacy for the president: Iraqi Christians

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A car bomb damaged this Chaldean church in west Mosul on Jan. 17, 2008. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Valgiusti)\ \ \ “While the United States is the occupying power in Iraq, it has enormous influence there and can do something,” Eibner said. “I was just at the State Department and it’s clear they know the facts. But the United States doesn’t even want to acknowledge the problem as they fear reaction from the Arab world. It would confirm Muslim charges that the Americans are crusaders who are there on behalf of the Christians.”\ \ \ Eibner, whose organization has begun a “Save Iraqi Christians” campaign, finds this attitude tremendously unfair.\ \ \ “President Bush said he wants to win the hearts and minds of Muslims; he’s never said that about any other religion,” he said. \ \ \ While the Americans dither, Christian homes and neighborhoods are taken over or destroyed and their occupants — if they survive — are forced into penury in Jordan or Syria. Some move to the Kurdish north of the country, but one must speak one of two Kurdish dialects to survive, and most Iraqi Christians know neither. Imagine, my two visitors said, having to move to Texas and get by only in Spanish. Or never knowing if your Sunday morning worship time will get delightfully interrupted by a car bomb.\ \ \ Those who move north are forced to join one of the two main Kurdish political parties there and produce a hard-to-get residency permit. And they are sunk if they are not part of a Kurdish clan, which helps its own members through well-established patronage systems. There are Christian villages north of Mosul (on the site of ancient Nineveh) but they do not have the space nor resources to take on thousands of refugees from Baghdad.\ \ \ I told them of my 2004 trip to that exact area, where I visited an Assyrian monastery and orphanage where everyone spoke Aramaic, the same language Jesus spoke. In my short time in the Kurdish cities of Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymania, I saw how everything depends on who you know. I learned that many Kurds feel animosity towards Christians because Saddam Hussein favored them so while persecuting the Kurds. Now that the Kurds are in the ascendancy, they feel there was no one to help them during the years Saddam was using them for target practice and that the Christians can wait in line along with everyone else.\ \ \ Warda disagreed with my assessment, saying she was raised in Ainkawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil where she underwent hardships along with everyone else. What she wants is a safe haven for Christians on the Nineveh plain, due east of Mosul, with foreign help in making the fertile area habitable with electricity, water, phone lines and the other accoutrements of civilization. It’s all farm or pastureland at the moment. \ \ \ “Roughly half of the Christian community in Iraq lives abroad now,” Eibner said. “As of 2003, one million Christians lived in Iraq. Maybe 600,000 remain.” \ \ \ Mesopotamia was once overwhelmingly Assyrian Christian with a sprinkling of Jews from the first through sixth centuries, they reminded me. The rise of Islam in the seventh century began putting a stop to that. Iraq’s last Jews fled after World War II, leaving eight remaining Jews in Baghdad today. \ \ \ “And of the 600,000 Christians left,” he said, “many aren’t living in their own homes. They are internally displaced. Whole districts of Baghdad were depopulated of Christians” by Sunni or Shi’ite militias. It’s as if all the Christians were driven out of Georgetown, old town Alexandria and Hyattsville.\ \ \ “There’s no major program to bring Christians back home,” he said. “What’s needed is a Marshall Plan for Iraq. The USA must create conditions for the return of people to somewhere in Iraq that is secure. I believe politically it could be done in a plan to return all Iraqis with a provision for Christians and other non-Muslim minorities.”\ \ \ “We have religions that don’t exist elsewhere in the world,” said Pacale Warda, in reference to the Yezidis (angel worshippers) and Mandaeans (followers of John the Baptist). The two have ranged the halls of Congress to try to get something done, but only Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback has spoken on the record about the dismal situation.\ \ \ Christians are still even in Basra, Warda informed me, even though news reports infer the city has gone totally Shi’ite. But there won’t be any left in the country if the current carnage continues.\ \ \ In his last 10 months in office, President Bush has a strange sort of freedom in that he is no longer beholden to public or even world opinion. Why not use this time to shore up the persecuted in Iraq? And if anyone complains, why should he care?\ \ \ Julia Duin, assistant national editor/religion, The Washington Times \

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