Iraqi refugees need Christian solidarity

By Annegret Kapp
6 May 2008

"Although I had been threatened many times in Iraq, I did not want to leave," says the Armenian Orthodox hairdresser Cayran. "But then my shop was burnt and the car of my husband, who used to work as a driver, was robbed. So we left everything behind and fled to Syria."

"Stories of lost loved ones, the sudden need to flee home and community and the hardship of life as refugees need to be told. And those who have the power to help end the tragedy of being a refugee need to listen."

At an April 2008 meeting of Iraqi Christian refugees and church representatives from around the world at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East in Damascus, Iraqi Christians who are now refugees in Syria spoke as church members from the US, Germany, Lebanon, Pakistan and Sweden, along with the general secretaries of the World Council of Churches and Middle East Council of Churches listened.

What the church representatives heard were stories of incredible suffering in Iraq and overflowing hospitality in Syria. They heard about the pain of living in Iraq and eventually leaving. They heard of the strain the influx of 1.5 million Iraqi refugees have placed on the economy of Syria creating the need for jobs, safety and security despite the unanswered questions of what next for the Iraqis.

The prices for food and housing are skyrocketing, and it is extremely hard to find a well-paid job. "Even if there were no refugees, the economy would have to create thousands of job opportunities a year in order to integrate our young people who join the labour market," Samer Laham, director of ecumenical relations at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, explained to the visitors from abroad.

That evening many spoke of the trauma suffered by their children and the insecurity of their future. Cayran said her son cannot speak normally since he closely escaped a kidnapping.

"Animals live better lives than human beings in Iraq," said Samira, a Syrian Orthodox refugee. "At least they have the freedom to move. We were even too afraid to go to church because people were kidnapped from church."

One day, when she was still living in Iraq, Samira went shopping with her daughter. "Three gunmen stopped us. They pushed my daughter around and asked her why she was in the street without a veil. Since then, she did not want to leave home and she dropped out of university."

Aram, who had been a member of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Baghdad, said: "My wife and I knew some Christians who were killed. As our numbers were on their mobile phones, their murderers used them to call and threaten us."

Aram also told about the mistrust that is poisoning communities in Iraq: "We had some friends, who turned out to work for the Mahdi Army. We thought they were friends, but they took our pictures in order to have us killed."

Incidents such as the publishing of the prophet Muhammad cartoons in Denmark in 2005 benefit the extremists, who use them to justify their hidden agenda to kick "non-believers" out of the country, Munir from the Calvinist community in Baghdad is convinced.

"My family was threatened: either you leave within 15 minutes or we will kill you," Munir described his own experience. He added that they did not know how serious the threat was, so they went to his sister's apartment next door and waited. Really an armed gang arrived. "They raped our wives, and even my eighty-year-old mother was beaten."

After Munir's brother-in-law, who had been kidnapped, was freed, the family left "immediately, without even taking any clothes with us," selling the apartment for a fourth of its value.

But life in Syria is not easy, either, as the resources which refugees managed to bring with them are soon used up, and jobs are hard to find.

"I have a brother and a sister outside the region," Munir said. "We depend on them and are a burden on them. But they cannot afford to send us money all the time."

A psychological burden for many families is the knowledge that any emergency or illness will find them without protection. Kwarin, a father of four, left his job with a security company in Baghdad to join his family in exile and take care of his children. "My wife urgently needs an operation," he said, "but I have no money to pay for it."

While the refugees are grateful to Syria and the churches there for welcoming them, many feel let down by the international community. Frustration prevails with regard to the Western embassies who have rejected visa applications again and again.

"Do they want that parents go back to Iraq and get killed before they allow the children to get out? Must our young women go back and be raped before they are allowed out?" one man asked angrily.

Cries of "No!" or even "Never!", both in English and Arabic, filled the room, as the question of whether they want to return to Iraq was put to the refugees. "Of course I want to go back to my country," a young woman from Basra explained. "But can you guarantee that I will not be killed? My relatives went back and were killed in one night."

The Rev Dr Volker Faigle of the Evangelical Church in Germany thanked the men and women who gave their testimonies to the WCC delegation for this clear message. "We cannot bring airtickets or visas along," he acknowledged. "But my church and the Roman Catholic Church in Germany will join hands and approach the government, the parliament and the European institutions to tell them what we have seen and heard. (...) When we return to our countries, we will think of you, we will pray for you and we will act for you."

The concern felt by Syria's Christian communities for their sisters and brothers in and from Iraq was tangible in all the encounters the WCC delegation had with church leaders.

Patriarch Mor Ignatius Zakka of the Syrian Orthodox Church, who was himself born in Iraq, told the ecumenical visitors about a priest of his church who had been killed just one week earlier, after he conducted the Holy Mass. "We do not want Iraq to be emptied of Christians but if they are in danger there, how could we tell them to stay?" asked the patriarch.

Many Christian refugees experienced that in Iraq belonging to a religious minority is dangerous. "Christians and other minorities are paying the price of the Iraq war," said Samer Laham, "because they are suspected of being traitors and of helping the allied forces - as if they were not an original part of the social fabric and had not shared the bread with their Muslim brothers since centuries. "

So when they arrive in the host country, Christians put most trust and expectations for help on the churches. Denominational boundaries, on the other hand, are easily overcome. "Our church is an open house for Iraqi either to hold their own services or to join ours, said the Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III. He added that his patriarchate works hand in hand with an Islamic centre to care for Iraqi refugees, whether they be Christian or Muslim.

Pastor Boutros Zaour, of the Evangelical National Church, said "it is Syria's destiny to be hospitable to refugees, ever since the Armenians fled here from the persecutions they suffered in the Ottoman Empire."

"The personal stories the delegation heard were heartwrenching," said Clare Chapman, deputy general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, at the end of the visit.

"We must pray for the Iraqi refugees and work together as member churches of the WCC and as citizens of our home countries, to address the conditions they daily endure. We must take our responsibility seriously, as people of faith, to do whatever we can to support them as they try to rebuild the lives they lost through no fault of their own," she said.

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(c) Annegret Kapp is web editor for the World Council of Churches (WCC) and a member of the Evangelical Church in Württemberg, Germany.

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