Wednesday, November 5, 2003

RAMADI, Iraq — Hostile sounds of a city in revolt drift over the iron gate as one of the last Christian families in Ramadi prepares for lunch.

In post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, Ramadi has become a hotbed of Islamic resistance.

Before the war, the Oro family ran a popular entertainment empire, serving alcohol in their restaurants and shops. Now, an Islamic fatwa declares that no one should trade in alcohol on pain of death. The big casino and dance hall that was once the flagship of the family’s 15-strong property portfolio has been taken over by bearded men who plan to turn it into Ramadi’s premier mosque.

“Fifty years I was working with drink, and now I have nothing,” said Younan Oro, the 70-year-old patriarch, his voice trailing off. “They drink like donkeys here. Business was good. I had a lot of restaurants and shops. Now my family tell me they want to kill me for keeping them here in this place.”

Nineteen persons share the Oros’ small house and its immaculate garden with rose bushes. The youngest girls, Younan Oro’s grandchildren, ages 2 to 5, cannot speak Arabic but giggle in Assyrian, a language that dates back to the ninth century B.C. They still manage to travel to Sunday services, piling into a bus shared with other families, but as the women of the house fried rice in the kitchen last week, the men — many of whom have Christian names — argued over when to leave Ramadi.

“We had a very good situation until the fundamentalists began to appear, and we were affected,” said Roger William, Mr. Oro’s son-in-law. “They changed the idea of Christians among the people and from then on we have suffered. Because America and Britain are Christian countries, the [fundamentalists] blame us for the war. We are terrified. We really don’t know what the future will hold.”

Even as war loomed, Mr. Oro was confident of expanding his business, borrowing 2 million dinars ($1,676) from a tribal chief to open new premises. In the month that followed the collapse of the Saddam regime, his shops were broken into and the stock smashed to pieces. He cannot repay his loan.

“I have nothing,” Mr. Oro said. “I do not dare to reopen my shops. Since the war, the people here have to rely on tribes for protection of their businesses. We have no tribe.”

Ramadi, 100 miles west of Baghdad, has long been a stronghold of a fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam. Nonetheless, thousands of Christians were attracted to the area by the prospect of working as clerks, nurses, cleaners and launderers at the biggest British Royal Air Force base in the Middle East, 15 miles out of town at Harbiniye, when the country was a British territory between the two world wars.

Younan Oro was born in the mountains on the Turkish border but left to seek work at Harbiniye. “At the time, we called this area the ‘Second London,’ but now it’s a joke,” he said. “Slowly, our people are going.”

Only 10 Christian families are left in Ramadi. Charlemagne Shmool, the parish priest, remembers the English airmen from the base, now taken over by the Americans. Now there is no hope of work for poverty-stricken local people: The perimeter has been sealed with earth-filled barricades and heavily armed sentries.

He said recent clashes between Christians and Muslims had left one of his parishioners dead. “The fundamentalists have put pressure on us as never before,” he said. “Within 10 years, there will be no Christians in this area. We will be finished.”

Iraq has an estimated 700,000 Chaldean Christians and more than 1 million Assyrian Christians.

Ashlimon Wardouni, the Chaldean bishop of Baghdad, last week warned the Vatican that the Iraqi Christians faced a grave future. “We ask for our interests to be included in the new Iraqi constitution, for our villages to be protected, for our rights to maintain our religious, cultural and linguistic traditions to be recognized,” he said.

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