Many Christians Flee Iraq, With Syria the Haven of Choice
by Katherine Zoepf, New York Times
August 5th, 2004
DAMASCUS, Syria, Aug. 4 - Abdulkhalek Sharif Nuaman likes to talk as he works, removing bubbly Iraqi bread from his ovens on long pallets. The baker is a cheerful man, yet his florid face darkens as he explains why he decided to flee Iraq.
Two months ago, Mr. Nuaman says, he was both a member of Iraq's small Mandaean sect, and a patriot with high hopes for the country's democratic future. Then Islamist extremists began attacking Christians in his Baghdad neighborhood, and his 9-year-old son was kidnapped, dragged into a moving car as he played near the family home.
After relatives scraped together $5,000 to ransom the boy, the family decided enough was enough and left, driving across the desert into Syria to apply for refugee status.
"We are safe here, and so we feel free," Mr. Nuaman said of his new home in the Damascus suburb of Jaramana. "The Syrians are brothers to us. There is no discrimination here. That is the truth, and not a compliment."
Iraq is home to some of the world's oldest religious communities, including Assyrians, an early, now independent Christian sect; Chaldeans, Eastern-rite Catholics who recognize papal authority; and the Mandaeans, who follow John the Baptist.
Yet, attacks on Iraq's tiny Christian minority have been steadily increasing since late spring, culminating in the bombing of five Christian churches in Baghdad and Mosul on Sunday. As a result, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Christians are now fleeing the country in record numbers.
Ajmal Khybari, an official at the refugee agency's Damascus office, said about 4,000 Iraqi families had registered as refugees in Syria. Although they represent less than 5 percent of Iraq's population, Iraqi Christians now make up about 20 percent of the total refugee flow into Syria from Iraq, Mr. Khybari said.
Rita Zekert, the coordinator of the Caritas Migrant Center, a Catholic charity in Damascus that provides food, medicine and other aid to new refugees, said last year's wartime influx of Iraqi refugees included Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Kurds in percentages roughly proportionate to their numbers in Iraq. "But nowadays, 95 percent of the people coming to us are Iraqi Christians," Ms. Zekert said.
Though Iraqi Christians are heading to Jordan and Lebanon as well, Mr. Khybari said, Syria is the preferred destination, for its low cost of living, cultural similarities with Iraq and policy of freely issuing visas to citizens of other Arab countries. "For people of a very depleted economic status, Syria is an easier choice," he said.
Yet most of Syria's newest Iraqi Christian refugees say the decision to leave their homeland was anything but easy. They tell of Christian shopkeepers killed by Islamist gangs for daring to sell alcohol, of family businesses sold to ransom stolen children. They say life in Syria is hard for them, as new refugees are often barred from jobs and schools. They left Iraq, they say, only because they were too terrorized to stay.
Solaka Enweya, 56, an Assyrian Christian who arrived in Syria with his three sons on June 27, explained that attacks on Christians had become common since Saddam Hussein's government was toppled, in part because of the perception that Iraqi Christians are aiding the Americans. But like other refugees here, he said attacks on Iraqi Christians increased this spring.
"When we heard that the Americans were going to liberate Iraq, we were so happy," Mr. Enweya said. "Yet our suffering has only increased."
He said his family had been receiving vague death threats since the start of the war, in March 2003. But beginning in April, he said, a local Islamist group began directly threatening his sons because of their faith. Then they blew up his van. Mr. Enweya had run a small delivery service, and with the loss of the van, his whole livelihood disappeared.
"Saddam didn't allow for people to incite religious life like this," he said. "We Christians have suffered so much. Our only choice was to come to Syria."
Suhair Mikhail, 33, recalls walking home from her church in Baghdad this spring with a friend, a young woman from her choir.
"A car stopped, and three men got out," she said. "They began tearing my friend's clothes. They said, 'Because this is the first time we see you unveiled, we will only strip you. The next time, we will kill you.' "
Despite the growing frequency of attacks and humiliations, the leaders of Iraq's Christians are urging their members to remain in Iraq or, if they have already left, to return.
"These terrorists are playing on the sectarian conflicts," said Emmanuel Khoshaba, a spokesman for the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a political party of Iraq's Assyrian Christians. "Before, they were tampering with Sunni-Shia relations. Now it's the Christians' turn."
He is especially worried that the church bombings will bring a new wave of refugees. Mr. Khoshaba counsels Christians to be patient.
"Iraq is in a new stage of its history," Mr. Khoshaba said. "We have free speech, and places in the national assembly. Chaldeans and Assyrians are some of Iraq's most ancient people. It will be terrible if they leave before we can taste the fruits of Iraq's democracy." http://www.occupationwatch.org/article.php?id=6164