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Iraq: Christians Uncertain About Their Future

Iraq's Christians suffered discrimination and manipulation under the former regime. Although a few became high-standing officials in Saddam Hussein's government, the vast majority of the country's Christians could not count on the beneficence of authorities in Baghdad. Now, some Christians say the United States has won the war but is still far from winning the peace -- something that leaves them wary about the future.

Baghdad, 9 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq's small but diverse Christian community is divided in its stance on Saddam Hussein. Some remember him as a tyrant and say they are pleased he has been ousted. Others say he was their sole defender in a largely Muslim country.

William Nurvyn is a Catholic from a family with British origins. In his 30s, he belongs to the generation of Iraqis who remember no other leader beyond Saddam Hussein. With a comfortable house and Sylvester Stallone-like muscles, Nurvyn seems largely untouched by the difficulties experienced by so many Iraqis under Hussein's regime and the years of sanctions.

He says his family experienced no harassment during the former regime, and he knows of no Christians who did.

"We were not harassed by anybody, and nobody could harass us because we were backed by Saddam Hussein and he liked the Christians and gave them all freedom," Nurvyn said.

Nurvyn says a number of Christians were included in Hussein's entourage, including, most notably, former Deputy Prime Minster Tariq Aziz. But others say Aziz's success was due not to his religion but to his political skills.

Ara Karabed is a member of the Armenian Orthodox Church. He says that, as a Christian, he felt no pressure from the former regime. But he also says he has no sense that the Christian minority was ever given special treatment, and that Hussein treated many people the same regardless of their religion.

"[Hussein] protected Christian people in some ways, but when [a person] turned against him he did not care if he was a Christian, a Shi'a or a Sunni," Karabed said. "He killed [that person] or did something bad to him or put him in jail. He was bad to all of the people, you know."

Father Yousif Thomas Mirkis is a pastor at Al-Fikr Al-Masih, a Baghdad church run by the Catholic Dominican order. He is also the editor in chief of the Arabic-language magazine "Christian Thought."

He says the roughly one million Christians living in Iraq often felt unsafe and dependent on Hussein's goodwill. "It is wrong to say that Saddam supported Christians," Mirkis says. "But like all dictators he used a small community's fears to manipulate it and act as its defender."

Mirkis says some 200,000 Christians have emigrated from Iraq over the last 20 years. Many of them left after the 1991 Gulf War, when the largely secular Ba'ath Party turned to Islam to fill the ideological vacuum created by Iraq's defeat.

Mirkis says Hussein put forward many laws aimed at converting the country's Christian community: "If a Christian man or his wife becomes Muslim, automatically their children become Muslim. [No matter whether the parent is] a man or a woman, they are obliged to become Muslim and this was the law of the Ba'ath regime.

Muslims were also favored in Christian-majority towns, with Islamic religious instruction provided even in schools with a single Muslim student. Christian students, meanwhile, were often denied religious education or were forced to study the Koran.

Mirkis, who spent six years as a theology student in France, says Iraq's Christian community is small but unusually diverse, comprising Chaldean Catholics, Armenian and Syrian Orthodox and Nestorians (or Assyrians), and others.

The pastor says Iraq's Christians are also traditionally well-educated and claims many go on to enjoy prosperous careers.

"Even if we [make up] about 10 percent of the population [in Baghdad], we are 35 or 40 percent of the total of the engineers and doctors and educated people," he said.

Mirkis says the country's Christians have always thought of themselves as good Iraqi citizens. Many were strongly opposed to the U.S.-led war against Iraq. The Vatican's embassy is the only foreign diplomatic building that has not been evacuated, attacked, or looted, and Mirkis says two Baghdad hospitals run by the Dominicans also remain intact. Many people continue to seek refuge from looters by taking shelter in church buildings.

Iraq's Christian community remains strong, Mirkis says. But they are worried about the future.

"American wanted the war against Iraq, but will she win the peace? [America] invaded our country and now everybody recognizes it is a true invasion. They still have not succeeded at establishing peace and confidence among the population," he said.

Many Christians are also concerned that their interests will be lost in the rising power of the country's long-suppressed Shi'a majority. With Muslim religious sentiments on the rise, Mirkis says many Christians are nervous they will become the target of a fresh wave of oppression. He says many Christians are taking a string of recent attacks on alcohol shops -- many of which are Christian-owned -- as a warning.

"Our destiny," Mirkis says, "always depends on the ideology of those who are in power." It was a phrase he repeated several times throughout the interview.