Page last updated at 12:58 GMT, Thursday, 11 November 2010

Iraq's Christians living in fear

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Baghdad

Every religious group in Iraq has suffered appalling violence in recent years, but an attack on a Catholic cathedral in Baghdad which left more than 50 dead and threats from a group linked to al-Qaeda have added to the fears of the minority Christian community.

Women grieve during a funeral for victims of an attack on a Catholic catherderal in Baghdad
Christians have lived in Iraq for nearly 2,000 years

We were in one of the churches near where we live in central Baghdad, and they were preparing to bury some of the dead from the disaster in the cathedral just a stone's throw away.

There was already a row of coffins, draped in the Iraqi flag, lined up in front of the altar.

Every so often, the doors would open, and more coffins would be carried in, one after the other, bringing fresh waves of sobs and applause from the grieving congregation.

On her knees, slumped over the end of the coffin laid out closest to me, was a young mother who had obviously just lost her husband.

Their bright little daughter, less than two-years-old, was playing on the coffin, and running back and forth - obviously just too young to understand.

Every so often she would ask her mother, "Where's papa?" And the reply would come, "Papa's with Jesus."

You could tell from the dull, faraway look in the mother's eyes, that she was looking back on the life she had been living, that had just been abruptly ended, and ahead to a new, harder life, as a widow with young children to bring up, in a place where life and loved ones could be taken away at any moment without warning.

Perhaps it was a small comfort to those stricken with grief that among the many who came to honour their dead, were people and leaders from other communities, Sunni and Shia Muslims, politicians and clerics.

Because the Christians are a threatened and dwindling minority, many probably also felt that this was an attack on the very fabric of Iraqi society

What happened at the Catholic cathedral sent a huge shock wave through their community, but it was also felt by all the others, despite the many unspeakable atrocities they themselves have suffered in recent years.

Think of the many Shia mosques and shrines that have been massively bombed, the funeral processions and pilgrim groups attacked, the markets and crowded streets devastated, and the thousands of Sunnis abducted, tortured and killed just for being Sunnis.

Bullet holes in a stone relief of the Virgin Mary at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad
About 100 people were inside the church at the time of the attack

But many instinctively felt that the attack on the church was something special. The Christians are a minority, less than 5% of the population.

They are not involved in the struggle for power or mastery. So for most Iraqis, attacking them is, haram, which means not just forbidden, but also something that just should not happen, something reprehensible, and pitiful, and wrong.

Because the Christians are a threatened and dwindling minority, many probably also felt that this was an attack on the very fabric of Iraqi society, on the co-existence that has to survive if Iraq itself is to survive.

Seeking a safer life

It was Bishop Metti Metok's cathedral that was attacked. He lost two of his priests killed, and half his regular congregation dead or wounded.

Aug 2004 - series of bombings targets five churches, killing 11
October 2006 - Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, snatched in Mosul by group demanding ransom. Despite payment of the ransom, priest found beheaded, his arms and legs also cut off
June 2007 - Ragheed Ganni - a priest and secretary to Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahh, killed in 2008 - shot dead in his church along with three companions
January 2008 - Bombs go off outside three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul, two churches in Kirkuk and four in Baghdad
February 2008 - Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahh kidnapped; body found in shallow grave two weeks later
April 2008 - Fr Adel Youssef, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, shot dead by unknown assailants
February 2010 - At least eight Christians die in a two-week spate of attacks in northern city of Mosul
October 2010 - At least 40 Christians killed after a kidnapping at Baghdad's Catholic cathedral

When his flock ask him now, should they stay or try to leave, he says they should stay, to bear witness to their faith. But he says, sadly, he knows he cannot stop them going.

Everybody knows that nobody is truly safe. The government may step up security around churches. But the community is scattered everywhere, impossible to protect, as this latest rash of bomb attacks shows.

And going, many of them already are.

Fadya and her family are leaving this week, for California. They have been waiting two years for their American visas, so it is not a spur-of-the-moment thing.

She says she just wants not to be afraid any more, afraid for herself, and for her four and eight-year-old boys.

As well as Arabic, the family speak their own Assyrian dialect, as the community here has since biblical times. But there is hardly a word of English between them.

These are not posh people, not middle-class. Fadya worked for us as a cleaner. She has never been on a plane before.

When I heard she was going, I tried to teach her a few words of English.

"How are you, Fadya?"

To help her respond I held up a box of locally-made tissues which happen to be called "Fine", written in Arabic and English.

I am just hoping that when she arrives at immigration in California a few days from now and the officer says, "Morning ma'am, how are you?" she doesn't get flustered and say "Kleenex".

It is sad to think that if I ever see Fadya again, she will be different, and her boys Issa and Edmond will be little Americans.

Her mother is still here though, and her brothers. But other Christians are leaving every day. They know it is not a question of just protecting them, but of mending Iraq.

Perhaps out of the current intense political struggle will emerge the foundations of a stable future.

That is all that the Christians who remain behind here can pray for, so that these ancient communities can cling on, and eventually, people like Fadya can think about coming back.

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