Friday, August 27, 2004

Thousands of Christians were chased out of Iraq by radical Muslims but some of them are returning to Kurdish-controlled areas in the north, Iraq’s designated ambassador to the Vatican said yesterday.

Reached by telephone at his Baghdad office, Ambassador-designate Albert Yelda pleaded with Christians not to flee.

“We are the descendants of the original residents of present-day Iraq,” he said.

Fewer than 1 million Christians live in Iraq today, a nation of about 25 million. Many were terrified of staying after five churches were bombed earlier this month.

“This was the work of foreign terrorists,” Mr. Yelda said. “Iraq’s Muslim leaders do not want us to leave. Christians enjoy their highest respect.”

Mr. Yelda, who will take up his post in Rome as soon as the Vatican accredits him, acknowledged the fear that drove the Christians from their ancestral homes.

“And that’s tragic,” he said. He noted that these refugees left the soil where their ancestors had created one of mankind’s oldest and most spectacular civilizations — Mesopotamia.

Some Christians are returning from exile in Western Europe, Australia and the United States, especially the Chicago area, home to the largest group of Assyrian Christian expatriates. “They are business people, physicians, lawyers and teachers willing to invest in Iraq and participate in the reconstruction of its society,” he said.

Mr. Yelda spent most of his adult life as a refugee in Britain, where he had fled while officially under house arrest at age 16 in Baghdad.

“Saddam Hussein was engaged in a campaign of cultural genocide,” Mr. Yelda used to say during his stay in London, where he was one of the leaders of the Iraqi National Congress, then the largest opposition movement in exile.

He empathizes with Christians fleeing Iraq after the latest wave of attacks — including rape — on young women working for the American military and foreign corporations. “Christians must not give up their properties here. If they want to flee the violence, which is not the work of local Muslims, they should go north to Kurdish territory, and come back when security in Baghdad has improved.”

This may be happening. Assyrians are returning in considerable numbers to Kurdistan, from where they escaped after the destruction of their villages on Saddam’s orders.

“Not a day goes by without a family contacting me wishing to come back, especially since the terrorist attacks in Baghdad in early August,” Patros Harboli, the Roman Catholic bishop of Dohuk, told Le Figaro, the French newspaper.

In Baghdad, prominent Muslim clerics and political leaders have told Mr. Yelda they do not want to see Christians sell their property and move across the border to Jordan, Syria and then on to the West.

“They go out of their way to show us their respect, inviting our patriarchs to all major events,” he said, “and they roundly condemned the attacks on our people, the bombings of our shops, the rapes and the killings.”

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