Published: 00:00 GMT Daylight Time - Friday 11 May 2007
Defenceless in Dora: the latest twist in anti-Christian violence in Iraq
It was in 1999 that I first went to Dora, which for many centuries has been a strongly Christian area of Baghdad. Visiting a block of flats, I saw the appalling poverty of the Christian community. Like most of the Iraqi population they were suffering the effects of the UN sanctions, but in addition Christians had to cope with the hostility of Muslims who blamed the Christians for what were seen as "Western" sanctions
and the intolerable deprivations which they created. The hostility was at this time kept in reasonable check by the tight security of Saddam's regime.
Take my last son away with you
In the company of a government interpreter I called on a Christian woman and her teenage son. Her living room had only a table and a few chairs - everything else had been sold to try to survive. When we entered she spoke to the interpreter and then started to cry. I learned that she was pleading for me to take her son back to Britain with me. "I had six sons," she explained. "The five eldest have all died fighting in Saddam's wars [the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and the Gulf War of 1990-1]. My husband also died in the military. Next year my youngest son will be old enough to be called up, and most likely he too will be killed."
I stood containing my emotion as this lady spoke with great courage, knowing what she said would be reported back by the interpreter to the intelligence service. I could do nothing to help her, for it was impossible for me to take her son away with me. What has become of her and her son, and of other Christians like them whom I came to know on my various visits to Iraq?
Pay, convert, leave or die
Since the war of 2003 the anti-Christian hostility in the country has increased immeasurably, and there is no longer the strong hand of Saddam to prevent the men of violence from doing as they please. In response to raging anti-Christian violence, huge numbers of Iraqi Christians have fled their homes. A few have chosen another option and converted to Islam. It is next to impossible to continue to live in Baghdad as a Christian.
Many Christians in Dora are now facing demands for the traditional Islamic tax on non-Muslim minorities, the jizya. This is not being imposed by the government, but by Islamist insurgents who are operating freely in Dora without any intervention by either Iraqi or American forces. In keeping with the teaching of shari'a (Islamic law), Christians are offered the choice of paying money (which will be used to fund the insurgent violence), converting to Islam, leaving the area, or being killed. The demands can come as written messages delivered to their home, or from militants knocking on the door. Sometimes the option of paying jizya is not offered - it is then a choice of convert to Islam, flee within 24 hours leaving their homes to be seized by the militants, or be killed.
Christians in Mosul have also been facing demands for jizya.