Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Iraq must protect its Christians

'Before the war, Christians were a learned, professional class that enjoyed civilian jobs and some deference from former dictator Saddam Hussein. But like Kassab himself, many fled during the 1980s to avoid conscription into Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, and the dictator’s treatment of Christians became increasingly erratic and brutal as he became more paranoid and unstable through the 1990s. "He prevented newborn babies to be given Biblical names, and [he] nationalized our institutions," says Kassab.

But nothing could prepare his people for what was to come after Saddam fell. Out-of-work Ba’ath soldiers became armed brigands. Sunnis and Shi’ites roamed the streets, seeking scapegoats. Churches were targeted. Christians who had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors before were now branded traitors and accused of colluding with the Americans, of being "infidels" and "crusaders."

"The whole situation in Iraq led very frail communities in Iraq, like the Christians, to be hurt first and foremost. They don’t have tribal people to help them, they are small. People were kidnapped and killed right in front of their neighbors and families. We’ve had people crucified. Some women have had acid tossed in their faces."

And it all happened with seemingly little rhyme or reason, other than to punish arbitrarily – whether it be the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, who was found in a shallow grave after he was kidnapped in March 2008, or the 5-year-old boy who was kidnapped and killed, his small body found partially eaten by wild dogs, in a small village outside Mosul in May of this year.

The Shia-dominated government in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has made many promises to stop the violence, but so far, has not come through, says Kassab. Meanwhile, with only two Christian members of parliament, it is extremely difficult to exert political pressure internally. In November, one of the parliamentarians, Yonadam Kanna, called for a formal inquiry into the recent killings.

"We definitely get sweet words [from the government], no doubt about it, and a lot of sympathy," says Kassab, "but not all the action." '

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