Published: 00:00 GMT Standard Time - Tuesday 23 January 2007
Iraqi Christians Fleeing Violence Face Uncertain Future
- Iraqi Christians form disproportionate number of total refugee population
- Barnabas Fund launches e-Petition in the UK to help protect the rights of Iraqi Christians
Against a backdrop of unremitting violence and the constant threat of persecution, Iraqi Christians are being forced out of their communities and onto the road in a desperate search for safety. In the third of a series of special reports on life within Iraq, Barnabas Fund discovers that life as a Christian refugee brings its own dangers and hardships.
Leaving your home, your job, the life you have always known. Fleeing for your life, with nothing but your memories, to an unknown destination. It is a decision that few of us in the West will ever be forced into taking. For a growing number of Iraqi Christians, this nightmare is their life.
Ebrahim Awisha* took this decision when he found out that his son had been targeted by Islamic militants and had broken his leg in the effort to escape their attack. Mrs Lila Attar * felt she had no choice when her husband was killed by insurgents. Different circumstances, difference trigger points, one similarity; they were targeted because of their Christian faith.
The ongoing sectarian violence in Iraq preoccupies the Western media. The headlines are dominated by the groups undertaking the fighting - primarily Shia militia and Sunni insurgents. Minority groups get forgotten in the rush to provide the story on the latest atrocity, the newest horror. Iraqi Christians are one such group whose plight is often overlooked.
Christians make up disproportionate number of refugee population
Latest figures from the UN estimate that around 3.7 million Iraqis - 1 in 8 - have been forced out of their homes by the violence. While many Iraqis were displaced before 2003, it is estimated in 2006 that nearly 500,000 fled to other areas of the country, and between 40,000 - 50,000 flee their homes every month. Christians, who made up only 3-4% of the population of Iraq, account for nearly a quarter of the refugee population. The number of Christians left in Iraq has fallen from 1.4 million in the 1980s to less than 500,000 now.
The high number of Christian refugees is not accidental; it is part of the plan of Muslim insurgent groups to clear Iraq of its Christian heritage. Christian refugees will commonly tell of being given a timeframe - two days, a week - to leave their homes or face death at the hands of insurgent groups. In this time they have to pack up what they can for the long journey and their new life.
Some try to sell items to pay for the passage, but find few buyers. After all, say some Muslims, why pay for something, when it will be available for free in a few days time? Some simply do not get the chance to go back to their homes. Ebrahim was too scared to take his family back to their house, and so sent his neighbour to collect food and clothing for the journey.
Decision to flee changes priorities
Priority when packing goes to items needed for survival. Clothes. Food and water for the journey. Tents for shelter. Perhaps some items for cooking, maybe some tools. When speed is of the essence and space is tight - entire families cram into cars and small minibuses for the journey - life becomes dominated by a new set of priorities.
Life in transit carries immense dangers. Travel anywhere in Iraq is dangerous, and vehicles on main roads are frequently targeted by insurgent groups. Convoys of vehicles are considered easy pickings for robbers, since those on board will be vulnerable and may be carrying their life savings in cash. For fleeing Christians, many of whom are grieving for loved ones, or caring for sick and injured relatives, this adds to the stress and tension. Uncertainly about what awaits at their destination only compounds the horror.
Christians aim for Northern Iraq
Many Christian refugees heading to the Kurdish region in the North of Iraq, joining the Christian population in the area around the Nineveh Plains outside Mosul. There are tentative plans to provide Christians with a safe haven in this region, living under the jurisdiction of the Kurdish governors. These have been given a cautious welcome by Kurdish leaders, and backed by many Iraqi Christian leaders.
Whilst some refugees are joining settled Christian communities, others are looking for new areas to settle. Some Christians are moving back into villages that had been ethnically cleansed by Saddam’s “Arabisation” programmes in the 1980s. These now stand empty as Sunni Muslims, fearing reprisals for their time in the North under Saddam, have migrated down into other Sunni areas of Iraq.
Life in the North has a semblance of normality. Since the whole region has been semi-autonomous for nearly fifteen years, it has a degree of calm that is at odds with the chaos elsewhere within the country. The food markets are full and lively, for those who have the money to spend. There is even a functioning welfare system which administers emergency food aid to the needy.
Refugees from violence face new threats
That is not to say that life here is comfortable. There is little work for the refugees, as the dominant economy of the North is agricultural and few from the cities have the skills or the tools to work the land. Lack of work means that many are living off meagre savings, or are reliant on emergency food aid. However, the sheer number of refugees is threatening to overwhelm the area. The social welfare system is operating well beyond capacity, leaving the most vulnerable at risk of missing out.
Living in refugee camps brings new problems including risks to health and well-being. Disease and illness are rife and there is little in the way of basic medicines. Common ailments - colds, infections from cuts - become life threatening, particularly for the very young and the very old.
There are social problems too. Being a refugee puts incredible strain upon the family unit - fathers who cannot find work, mothers too traumatised by what they have seen to care for their families, children missing out on an education as they look after relatives and younger siblings. The stress of the situation is too much for many, and family breakdown is common.
Now Christian families in the North face the threat of growing instability in the region. The UN warned last week that tensions over the fate of the Kurdish areas in the North, particularly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, were threatening to drag a number of neighbouring countries into open dispute with Iraq’s government and its Kurdish population. The US has also threatened to take action over what it sees as Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs. For Christians who have fled from violence elsewhere in the country, such developments would bring unbridled horror.
Given the level of threats they have faced within Iraq, many Christians have decided that the only route to safety lies in leaving the country. Syria and Jordan are favoured destinations, with Iraqi Christians making up more than half the Iraqi refugees living within Syria. However, those aiming to leave Iraq are now facing severe problems getting across the borders into neighbouring countries. Jordan and Syria say they are full and can no longer cope with the flood of refugees knocking on their doors.
One factor drawing many to neighbouring countries is the availability of medical facilities and supplies. However, these come at a cost. Many families have spent a large proportion of their savings getting ill members of the family across the borders for treatment or an operation. Once there, savings quickly vanish as rising prices take hold, leaving families in situations of dire need.
Increasingly it is refugee women who are left homeless and destitute, as breadwinners have been killed either before or during flight. Many live with friends. Mrs Lyth Awisha*, a widow from Mosul, lives in a cramped one-room apartment with friends in Syria because she cannot afford to live anywhere else. Not far away Mrs Zena Shamoun* struggles to feed the six members of her family. Both lost their husbands to the insurgency inside Iraq.
The plight of the Christian refugees is particularly acute because they may never get to return to their homeland. The UN has acknowledged that the militia operating within Iraq are using acts of terror to force ethnic and religious groups out of the country. Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of Barnabas Fund, holds that the governments of the West should be doing more to protect the Christian minority. “Iraqi Christians need a robust programme to protect their rights and existence,” he comments. “Such a programme would need three elements. Initially, this would be through the provision of a secure ‘safe haven’ in northern Iraq; secondly, by granting additional aid for the Iraqi Christian refugees both in Iraq and surrounding countries; and thirdly, by granting asylum in coalition countries where necessary.”
* all names have been changed for the safety of the people involved.
Barnabas Fund launches e-Petition to help protect rights of Iraqi Christians
Barnabas Fund has created an e-petition to raise awareness of the huge dangers facing Iraqi Christians. This petition is open for signature by UK citizens or UK residents only. It will run until April 2007, and when closed will be forwarded directly to the British Prime Minister.
The more signatories we can get, the higher profile this issue will assume in the eyes of UK MPs. Barnabas Fund would encourage all of our UK supporters to sign this petition, and to ask their friends and colleagues to do the same.
For more information and to sign the petition, please log on to [Link]