Maree (ms_maree) wrote in ontd_political,

Christians in exodus from hostile home

RIMA, whose sister was murdered by Saddam Hussein's officers, is going to America. Hani, another Christian, is off to Sweden after surviving a kidnap by a Baghdad militia. Michael Marody, whose cousin was also abducted but did not come back alive, is heading for Australia.

War-torn, anarchic Iraq, however, is not the only place in the Middle East where fewer Christians will be celebrating this Christmas.

The region that was Christianity's birthplace is witnessing an unprecedented modern-day exodus - they are victims of radical Islam, the global economic crisis, and new currents of sectarian feeling from Arabs and Jews alike.

In Bethlehem, the lights are on for Christmas, but its resident Christians have dwindled from 80 per cent of the population in the post-war years to just 25 per cent today. The carpenters who hand-craft the wooden figurines that feature in nativity scenes worldwide are shutting up shop, hamstrung by the difficulties of working in the Palestinian West Bank.

''Every year we have obstacles,'' complained Elias Giacaman, a Bethlehem woodcarver who can trace his ancestry to the Crusades. Crates loaded with unsold figurines fill the floor of his workshop, which has cut its staff from 18 to six. ''After the intifada - and three or four years of curfews - there was the Lebanon war, the economic crisis and all the time we have the [security] wall.''

Such tales of misery are repeated both in neighbouring cities and neighbouring lands. In Jerusalem, some Orthodox Jews spit on passers-by wearing crucifixes. In the other Palestinian enclave of Gaza, Christian shops have been firebombed. In Egypt, meanwhile, a string of businesses owned by Coptic Christians was burned down in riots in the southern province of Qena last month. ''Copts are in a continuous state of fear,'' said Anba Kirillos, the diocesan bishop.

Pope Benedict touched on the insecurities of his Middle-Eastern flock during a tour of the region earlier this year. ''The Catholic community here is deeply touched by the difficulties and uncertainties which affect all the people of the Middle East,'' he remarked.

But while the Pontiff sought to avoid finger-pointing, Iraqi Christians like Mr Marody are less hesitant. ''We were driven out,'' he said bluntly. ''They bombed our churches. They killed us deliberately so we would leave. It was organised.''

The sweeping sectarian violence of Iraq is well documented, though the suffering of its once million-strong Christian community has been less prominently recorded. As many as 600,000 have fled since 2003, while hundreds of thousands more have moved to safer areas in the north, abandoning once thriving communities in Mosul, Baghdad and Basra.

Mr Marody's cousin in Baghdad was particularly vulnerable, as he owned a liquor store. It was a trade that Christians dominated during Saddam's secular rule, but which put them in the line of fire after the war, as the city became dominated by Islamist militias.

At first, he was seized from his car and a ransom was demanded. Later, when the family was unable to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars demanded, they were told to go to a roundabout in Sadr City, Baghdad's impoverished Shia suburb. There, they found his body - bearing gunshot wounds and cigarette burns.

Mr Marody, Rima and Hani are all members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, whose antiquity is reflected by its continued use of Aramaic, the ancient language of Christ.

There is little evidence of widespread Muslim resentment towards Iraq's Christians, who are far from the only victims of the country's post-war sectarian violence, which is estimated to have cost about 80,000 lives.

However, they have sometimes been targeted by al-Qaeda-backed extremist groups. Last week, bombers struck two churches in Mosul, killing a baby and wounding at least 40 people. In July, six simultaneous church bombings killed five people and injured scores more.

Christian officials have also been singled out. Last year, Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, was kidnapped and killed.

Across the Middle East, a Christian population that stood at 20 per cent a century ago has now sunk to below 5 per cent. Yet the rise of radical Islam is not the only factor. In the occupied territories, Christians suffer alongside Muslims from Israeli policies, most recently the new ''security wall''.

Arab priests claim that Israel turns a blind eye to violence against Christians, hoping they will leave and make it easier to portray the conflict as one between Jews and Muslims.

That is denied, but incidents of harassment by extremist Orthodox Jews cannot be. Father Athanasius Macora, a Franciscan friar in Jerusalem's Old City, speaks of the latest trend: spitting attacks by young Orthodox on anyone seen wearing a crucifix. ''It has happened to me quite a number of times in the past six months, sometimes once a week,'' he said. ''It's very ugly, especially when it's kids of nine or 10 doing it.''

Christians in Gaza are an increasingly beleaguered community of a few thousand. Islamic radicals attacked, among other targets, a Christian bookstore, and killed its owner in 2007. Attacks are condemned by Hamas, the ruling power in Gaza, but little action is taken.

The political equation with Western policies is, perhaps, simplest in Egypt, where the Coptic Christians, 10 per cent of Egypt's total population by most estimates, is closely associated with America and Western backers of Hosni Mubarak, its authoritarian ruler of 28 years.

As Mr Mubarak keeps a tight lid on opponents in the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic organisations, Christians are an easy target for reprisals.

Sometimes, local disputes turn into conflict, as was the case in Qena last month, when Muslims attacked a Christian neighbourhood after accusing a local Copt of rape. But sometimes the violence is more directly religious: last year, Muslims rioted against a new church that was due to be consecrated in the Cairo suburb of Ain Shams. It remains closed - a serious blow in a country where to build a church requires special presidential permission and years of patience.

''I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East,'' said the Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Benjamin Sleiman, at the time of the Pope's visit in May.

Father Remon Moussalli, Amman's resident Chaldean priest, says his flock is falling in number, with exiles moving on faster than they arrive.

''There's a satanic stance against the Christians, maybe not just in Iraq but in all the Middle East,'' he said. ''The Christians are like the peaceful Muslims, but there are no Christian militias to protect them.''


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