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Iraq: Christians Face Threats From All Sides

Christians in a Baghdad church As Iraqis work to draft a permanent constitution that may deem Islam a source of legislation for the country, the Christian community faces the prospect of a life where they may worship freely, but will have little representation or benefits from government.

The protest by Christians from a number of Iraqi towns and villages in northern Iraq who were not afforded the vote in January's elections has been well documented. Ballot boxes never arrived at polling stations in several towns, and an investigation carried out by the Independent Election Commission deemed that it would not allow the vote to take place at a later date. The National Assembly election resulted in six Christians gaining seats in the parliament; Christians argued they were entitled to twice as many seats.

Many of Iraq's Christians see their plight in ever-disheartening terms, and view their fate as part of a history in which their community has suffered at the hands of more dominant groups in Iraq.

Since the fall of the Hussein regime, Christians have been targeted in bombings against churches, shrines, hair salons, and liquor stores. Christian women and children were routinely kidnapped and held for exorbitant ransoms. Muslim zealots have forced women to veil in markets, universities, and schools, some Christians claim.

A 26 June report in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) daily "Kurdsitani Nuwe" contends that many families have sought shelter from the attacks in the PUK-controlled areas of eastern Kurdistan. Other families -- as many as 40,000 people according to some reports -- have migrated to foreign countries, most notably Syria.

Those families who relocated to PUK areas are considered internally displaced people, and PUK head and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has ordered the Kurdistan local government to provide these families with plots of land, homes, and employment, according to the report.

Assyrians living in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)-controlled area of western Kurdistan also experience good relations with their Kurdish neighbors. However, some Assyrians claim there is tension between them and the KDP. The tension appears directly related to aspirations by some Assyrians for an autonomous self-administered area comprising their towns and villages in northern Iraq. Residents of these villages and towns have claimed that the KDP has not allowed for the implementation of Article 53 of the Transitional Administrative Law issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority last year that states: "This law shall guarantee the administrative, cultural, and political rights of the Turkomans, Chaldo-Assyrians, and all other citizens."

The villages in question further claim that the KDP government has not distributed revenues to their towns, and they want their fair share. U.S.-based Freedom House's Nina Shea has supported the claim, saying Kurdish administrators have withheld U.S. reconstruction funds from Chaldo-Assyrian areas and confiscated Christian farms and villages, reported on 14 March.

Christians south of the Kurdistan region face greater difficulties. More than 20 churches have been bombed since the fall of the Hussein regime. Purported Islamist militants have kidnapped, killed, and in some cases beheaded Christians.

Insurgent propaganda in Iraq has always portrayed U.S.-led multinational forces in Iraq as "Christian Crusaders" who have made Iraq the first stop in their quest to conquer the Arab world and destroy Islam. The comparison has left Christians in Iraq more vulnerable to insurgent attacks. However, it appears until now to have had little impact on Iraqis' views of indigenous Christians.

There is a growing fear among Christians in Iraq, however, that proselytizing evangelical Christians who entered the country after the war may inflict the most harm on the Christian communities. Christian leaders are worried about their congregations dwindling after the mass exodus of Christians before and after the war. Moreover, proselytizing has never been accepted among Muslims in Iraq and religious communities have long practiced a policy of not trying to convert other religions to their fold. Indigenous leaders fear the practice may strain Muslim-Christian relations.

"The way the preachers arrived here...with soldiers...was not a good thing," the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Sleiman told on 23 June. "I think they had the intention that they could convert Muslims, though Christians didn't do it here for 2,000 years," he continued, adding: "In the end, they are seducing Christians from other churches." Sleiman posited that new churches were creating a "new division" among Iraq's Christians because they impacted the cultural tradition of Christians there.

The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) addressed the issue of Kurdish Muslims who have converted to Christianity in recent months through the efforts of evangelicals in a 29 June report ( Converts told IWPR that the Muslim community tends to ostracize converts. "I consider that those who turn to Christianity pose a threat to society," said Muhammad Ahmad Gaznayi, Kurdish religious affairs minister. The Kurdistan Islamic League has called the practice an "unhealthy phenomenon" and a "strange and terrible act," IWPR reported.

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