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The open wounds of Iraqi Christians

9 December 2008

MRG intern Aimee Griffin attends a church service in London and meets Iraqi Christians in exile in the UK whose dreams of returning to their homeland are rapidly fading.

On a cold Sunday afternoon in December I made my journey to an Iraqi Christian Church service in West London. I was asked to attend the service by Minority Rights Group International to interview Iraqi Christians in London. I wanted to obtain a wider picture of the situation in Iraq for Christians. On my way, I found myself questioning the possibility that faith can get you through the most horrific events.

When I arrived I crept up to the gallery so as not to disturb the mass. As I gazed down, the Deacon (whom I had met previously) smiled up to me and I felt welcomed. Although I did not fully understand the ceremony, surrounded by the warmth of hymns and the awed concentration of the congregation, I could not help being touched by the service. I now understood the answer to my question: faith provides people with hope and belief that one day its people will be safe in Iraq.

The horrendous events which occurred in Mosul in October of this year could be described as a campaign of terror designed to eradicate Christians and other minorities from Iraq. Since 2003, a third of Iraqi Christians numbering 800,000 are believed to have fled. The Iraqi Christians with whom I spoke to are all too familiar with the events which occurred in October. They spoke of continuous fears for their relatives and friends who remain in Iraq.

One particular interview which continues to stand out in my mind, possibly because he reminded me of how much I take for granted and how little he rejoices over, was with a 20 year old Syrian Orthodox male not far from my own age. Obviously, his experiences were far removed from my own reality as a 23 year old from Ireland. He had piercing white teeth and a glowing smile but his brown eyes told a different story. 15 August 2006 is a date that he will never forget.

He was kidnapped by the Mahdi Army because he was believed to be a rich Catholic. He was badly beaten and they insulted Christ before him. The wounds of his kidnap are still clearly visible; they cut his hand and arm with a blade. At the same time he was forced to phone his mother to tell her to pay a ransom of $25,000. As he told this story I looked to his mother and felt a tear well in my eye.

This boy’s Mother had obviously relived these agonising moments many times in her head. She appeared agitated and continued to interrupt the boy’s story with added details he had forgotten. His physical wounds still hurt to this day but it is obvious the psychological scars run deeper and it is an event which he and his family will find difficult to forget.

But this 20 year-old is one of the luckier Iraqis. He has been granted asylum here in London. When asked if he would ever return to Iraq, he simply replied ‘I am scared. I will never return to Iraq even if things get better’. He added sadly that he believes Christians will soon disappear from Iraq. Unfortunately, I have found that this is a commonly held belief amongst most of the minority groups in Iraq.

Having read transcripts from interviews undertaken in Syria, Jordan and Sweden and from being involved in interviews here in the UK, it is clear to see that no minority group in Iraq has escaped the political, economic and religious based violence. All these vulnerable minorities from Christians to Yezidis are subject to the threat of abduction for ransom, torture, rape, threats and destruction of property.

In 2003, the country of Iraq was invaded by the US-led coalition to overthrow the inhumane leadership of Saddam Hussein & the Ba’ath party. This is common knowledge due in no small part to the extensive media coverage surrounding the controversial invasion. However, what failed to catch the media’s attention during and after the invasion of Iraq was the horrendous violence directed at minority groups. Before I began my internship with Minority Right Group International, I had little knowledge of the terrifying ordeals to which Iraqi minority groups are subjected to everyday. Over these last few months I have had an amazing opportunity to understand the upsetting, but courageous, experiences of a small number of Iraqi refugees who have escaped to London.

The horrific level of violence which Iraqi civilians continue to endure is a direct consequence of the embedded sectarian violence which has taken hold of the country. Iraq contains a mosaic of minorities including Armenians, Baha’is, Christians, Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, Jews, Faili Kurds, Mandaeans, Palestinians, Shabaks, Turkomans and Yezidis. Iraq’s diverse minorities are fundamental to the process of rebuilding their country. To ensure stability in the country, they must be protected and represented on the long and strenuous journey in uniting this war torn country. To rebuild this shattered country work must be undertaken from the inside out. Iraq will never be fully rebuilt without representation of all its diverse and ancient minorities.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.