Assyrian refugees in Ankawa, Iraq.Anjilo Fadheel, who was kidnapped and beaten for being Christian in Iraq, now wears the tattoo of praying hands holding a Rosary he had done after he came to the United States. — Howard Lipin The day the statue of Saddam Hussein was torn down in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in April 2003 — a day that was the basis for some of the most iconic and debated images of the war in Iraq — Sam, an Iraqi Christian who had a job at a barber shop just down the street from all of the action, skipped work.
“I saw everything with my eyes. I was there,” he said.
Like many Iraqis, he saw promise in the falling statue, and initially things were more or less OK. Even with the church bombings, the ransom kidnappings, the faith-based killings, the sectarian fighting between Shiite and Sunni militias, and the random atrocities that marked everyday life in occupied Iraq, Sam and his family were getting by.
That started to change in 2006, when militias made life unbearable even for those trying to keep a low profile. In late 2009, he fled to Jordan. That was after a group of women threatened his wife because she was Christian, and soon after a Shiite militia tried to recruit him. He eventually moved his family to San Diego.
In an interview this month at a coffee shop in El Cajon, home to one of the largest Iraqi populations in the U.S., Sam asked that his last name and workplace not be published. Even now, halfway around the world, he fears persecution because of his religion. He has a lingering regret: “We should have come before.”
But he knows he’s among the lucky. “Some people, they suffered more than us,” he said.
ISIS, the shorthand name for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a militant group that wants to create a fundamentalist caliphate, recently claimed much of northern Iraq and has been persecuting Shiite Muslims, Kurds, Christians and other minorities. San Diego County’s Iraqi population — estimated at 70,000 people — has watched with dread and a sense of familiarity because they say this is just the latest chapter in a slow and painful extinguishing of their people in a land they occupied for almost 2,000 years.
Anjilo Fadheel, who was kidnapped and beaten for being Christian in Iraq, now wears the tattoo of praying hands holding a Rosary he had done after he came to the United States (photo: Howard Lipin).
For Iraqi Christians, the past decade has been one disaster after another: first the emergence of violence that touched the lives of Iraqis, regardless of their religion, tribe or ethnicity, followed by violent and political persecution by radical insurgents and a noninclusive government.
Chaldeans [Roman Catholic Assyrians] in San Diego say they are haunted by their own tortured memories, as well as a stream of anguishing updates from their homeland. Now that ISIS has stormed their ancient homeland and killed or displaced Christians in the north, there’s a sense among Chaldeans in San Diego and in Iraq that help is urgently needed, coupled by a fear that any action would already be too late.
Mark Arabo, a Chaldean community leader who’s been pushing for safety measures and humanitarian aid, relayed a message to the international community he received from a man stuck in Iraq: “By the time you guys do everything you’re doing, there will be no Christians left (in Iraq). We’ll all be dead.”
Arabo added: “This is our chance to act. My worst fear is that we’ll look back three years from now and say we could have stopped this genocide.”
Stories from this community, along with blog posts from Iraq and documents from American and exiled Iraqi sources suggest that persecution of minorities and, particularly, of Christians, in Iraq unfolded in several phases, each more severe than the previous one.
When Sam moved to San Diego, he joined tens of thousands of Chaldeans who moved here in waves, drawn by the similar climate and the burgeoning Iraqi community in East County. After a handful of Iraqis settled in San Diego decades ago, others followed, either from refugee camps or after stopping first in another large Iraqi enclave in Michigan.
A large number came last decade, when Christian persecution became increasingly serious. These Iraqis have changed the flavor of El Cajon and Rancho San Diego, lining boulevards with Halal grocers and attending churches with services in Arabic or Aramaic by the thousands. At least a million others worldwide are estimated to have fled Iraq since the start of the war.
With the Chaldean community here, Sam has watched his country struggle to be rebuilt, he has been anguished at reports of worsening violence against Christians there, he’s mourned the dead and prayed for the living, and he has been frustrated by the lack of a solution to get them out of harm’s way.
Their diaspora leaves a void in the cradle of Christian civilization, noted many Chaldeans living here. But, others maintain, it may also be the only way they can survive.
Trouble brewing for years
“What’s happened in the past three months (has) been elevated to a level that’s never been seen before in our Christian history in Mesopotamia,” said John Daiza, a Carlsbad oil executive who was a senior adviser to the transitional government in Iraq from 2003 to 2005. After working on rebuilding the country, he has been angered by the failure of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to protect Iraqi Christians.
Iraqi refugees and scholars said the treatment of minorities can be broken down into several phases, which echo the country’s broader security situation.
In the years immediately after Hussein’s fall, Iraq entered a free-for-all, as groups struggled for control in the absence of a central power. Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and sectarian militias added to the chaos, with Christians being targeted or getting caught in the crossfire. A U.S. military surge brought a measure of stability after 2008, but the situation for Christians worsened again when ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, entered the north this year.
Long before this summer, Arabo spoke out about his people’s plight, prompted by the U.S. troop pullout and the absence of a status of forces agreement with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which would have left some American troops on the ground. At a luncheon with Obama, Arabo asked for protection for Iraq’s Christians.
“This wasn’t an overnight thing, where ISIS comes and kills Christians. What’s happening in Iraq was slowly but surely a deterioration of (the treatment of) Christians and minorities,” Arabo said in a recent interview.
In 2010, John Eibner, head of an international Christian organization based just north of Los Angeles, wrote to Obama asking for a “comprehensive strategy” to protect Iraq’s Christians.
“The threat of extermination is not empty,” Eibner wrote, detailing the human toll of the post-Hussein era: Hundreds of Christians have been killed, 61 churches bombed and “more than half the country’s Christian population has been forced by targeted violence to seek refuge abroad or to live away from their homes as internally displaced people.”
Michael Youash, with the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project research group, published a law review journal article detailing human-rights abuses in 2008 and warning that Christians will be eradicated at a cost to that nation’s stability, cultural richness and diversity.
Church bombings, priest killings and targeting of Christians “indicates to Assyrian Christians that while Iraq overall may stabilize, their lives will not get better. If the U.S. and Iraqi governments continue to downplay or deny the reality, the insurgents may prove to be right.” (Assyrians and Chaldeans are both Iraqi Christians.)
In 2007, a U.S. State Department report on the heavily Christian Iraqi region of Ninawa stated that Christians were being persecuted there. In the post-Hussein years, the area was a site of friction between minority Christians and Kurds, which were the area’s provincial rulers.
“The Christian minority faces considerable hardship,” the report stated, and referred to a lack of political representation for that population, along with human-rights abuses. The department has also tracked abuses there in annual reports.
Before and after Hussein
Iraq’s Christian population is one of the world’s oldest. A 2000 report by the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services painted a complex picture of the treatment of Christians before Hussein was deposed. The Iraqi government tried to assimilate Christians and other non-Arabs, and Christians weren’t allowed to convert Muslims. But they could build churches.
In northern Iraq, the situation was different: Christians were subjected to periodic bombings and “mob violence by Muslims,” the report stated, because of tensions with Kurds or between Kurds, or sometimes for no known reason. (After Hussein’s rule, the north became a relatively safer haven for Christians, as most violence against them was happening in Baghdad and the country’s south. That worsened over time and has completely changed with ISIS.)
The report stated, and Iraqis in San Diego confirm, that persecution in Hussein’s era generally wasn’t done along religious lines.
“Iraq always had minorities. They were all considered Iraqis,” said Wael Al-Delaimy, a UC San Diego professor of global public health. Iraqis were equally crushed under Hussein’s despotic fist and government persecution was rooted in politics and insubordination, not religion, he added.
Iraqis in San Diego of various backgrounds agreed on the benefits of Hussein’s ouster: the end of a draconian and paranoid rule, of chemical weapons used against Kurds, of sanctions and economic hardships. Chinar Hussein, with Kurdish Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group in San Diego, said she believes anyone would be better than the dictator.
The downsides are more debated. One immediate consequence: a power vacuum where radical groups and lawless brigands vied for power and where sectarian clashes spiraled into civil war, said Andrew Bacevich, a political science and military scholar at Boston University.
“When the Americans invaded in 2003, whatever their intentions, or what we may think of their intentions, the effect of the American invasion was to destabilize what had been a relatively stable country. It was not the Americans’ intention to produce a civil war between Sunnis and Shias, and certainly not the Americans’ intention to create a vacuum that al-Qaeda could fill in Iraq. There was no al-Qaeda in Iraq under Saddam,” Bacevich said.
Christians’ safety was another casualty. A minority group that had no political heft in 2003 (with one exception, as the foreign affairs minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Christian), Iraqi Christians were not seen as a threat by Hussein. Rather, the dictator trusted them to wash his clothes, cook and taste his food.
Chaldeans in San Diego cited these details as evidence that Christians fared well under Hussein: They were trusted and protected, even if they were not empowered.
Ben Kalasho, a local Chaldean advocate, views that era as a dark one for Iraq’s Christians. The “good life under Saddam” was a refrain of “those who were passive, who did not have ambitions to take on a bigger role … in the government. But the ones that wanted to see the Christian community and the other minorities prosper and gain these other powerful political roles, no, they all left” in the 1980s and 1990s, Kalasho said.
During Hussein’s secular regime — the ruler favored Sunni Muslims like himself over the country’s majority Shiite Muslims but mostly let other religions alone — Iraq’s Christian population began to shrink, from 8 percent in 1987 to 5 percent in 2003, largely because of emigration for economic opportunity. That exodus continued for the rest of the last decade, but the reason shifted to religious persecution, Chaldeans here said.
Daiza, the Chaldean oil executive, was involved in early efforts of post-Hussein nation-building. Incidents of persecution of Christians were “isolated, not systematic,” but there was one early and significant misstep in how the country’s laws were drafted, he said.
“We were imploring our government to understand the dynamic of making sure there were proper legal protection rights for minorities in Iraq,” Daiza said. The Iraqi constitution had language about protecting minorities. “The problem is it didn’t translate into proper actions.” In Iraq, that law had “no teeth, no muscle, no significance or substance whatsoever.”
Church bombings began to send a message to Christians, as described in 2004 by an anonymous blogger at Baghdad Burning.
“It makes me miserable to think that Christians no longer feel safe. … Christians have been suffering since the end of the war. Some of them are being driven out of their homes in the south and even in some areas in Baghdad and the north. Others are being pressured to dress a certain way or not attend church, etc. So many of them are thinking of leaving abroad and it’s such a huge loss.”
From chaos to extermination
“You know you are in Iraq when… / You can’t wear a cross in public…” So began a blog post written in 2006 by a woman who called herself Neurotic Iraqi Wife. She was smitten with her husband (dubbed “hubby”), but he was too busy rebuilding the country. Usually her posts were endearing, tragicomic. Not that one. She described the death of a Christian “killed because of his faith. … The mass media tends to concentrate on just the two sects (Sunni’s, Shia’s) forgetting that Iraq is also made up from Christians, Yazeedi’s, Turkmen, and of course Kurds. … But it is also the Christians that are targets, targets of death. ….”
After the chaotic post-Hussein years, Chaldeans say that proportionally, they bore more of the persecution starting around 2005 or 2006. That is when they fled the country in droves, and many have since settled in the United States, in San Diego, Ohio and Michigan, and globally in Jordan and Syria.
Because they had religion in common with the Americans, Christians were seen as collaborators, according to the article by researcher Youash and conversations with Chaldeans in San Diego. Crimes accelerated and became more serious. Priests and nuns were murdered. Heads of households were kidnapped, tortured or killed. Frequent bombs at churches made public celebrations of faith, from regular Sunday Mass to holy days, riskier and riskier. Orders to convert to Islam or face consequences grew more common.
Anjilo Fadheel, named after the Italian word for “angel,” experienced faith-based violence but survived. Today he’s in El Cajon, but about a decade ago he was a Chaldean teen in Baghdad. He gave himself a homemade tattoo of a cross on his left hand, using cigarette ash, water and a needle. It was small enough that he could hide it when he felt in danger. In 2006, he was kidnapped by a trio of thugs. They surrounded him, dragged him into a car and transported him to a room where he saw blood covering the walls. He prepared for his death.
Instead the men demanded his identification, asked if he was Christian, savagely beat him when he answered yes, and then sent him away with a warning.
Fadheel wasn’t able to leave Iraq until 2009, and eventually he made his way to El Cajon. Here, he got large tattoos that sprawl around both biceps. One shows hands joined in prayer and strung with rosary beads, and another shows a crown of thorns. After years of hiding, he said he finally feels free to profess his faith publicly.
What permitted such crimes without consequences — the kidnapping of Fadheel and the torture or death of other Christians, like the man in that blogger’s post? After the early years of lawlessness, the random acts of violence and religious targeting gave way to something more systematic: al-Qaeda forces were at work in Iraq, wreaking havoc on Christian and Muslim targets alike, while sectarian militias were targeting one another, as well as minorities.
In 2006, a hallowed mosque was blown up in Samarra, north of Baghdad, raising the bar of callousness because it was a cultural and ancestral institution for Shiite Muslims. It echoed the 2003 destruction of a Shiite mosque in Najaf, also by al-Qaeda affiliates.
The Iraqi government’s apparent indifference or inability to respond to the plight of minorities became evident in 2008, with the removal of an article from the constitution that guaranteed a certain segment of seats to minorities on provincial councils. Christians protested, including Iraqi author and activist Rosie Malek-Yonan, who made a speech in Los Angeles that year.
“With the removal of Article 50, so-called ‘democratic’ Iraq will shift back to being a conservative Islamic State that will no longer recognize the rights of its minorities, particularly the Christians. The reconstruction of Iraq cannot succeed when the rights of the country’s minorities are stripped from them,” Malek-Yonan said then.
The impact may be hard to discern: Was the law observed before? Would removing it make a difference? Would it have made a difference to Fady Antoon?
In 2010, Antoon’s aunt and uncle were killed in Baghdad. One of their relatives gained access to their property afterward and walked in to see the words “Allahu akbar,” or “God is great,” written on the walls, presumably with the couple’s blood. Money and valuables were untouched.
“Both of them were slaughtered inside their house, I think because they were Christian,” said Antoon, who now lives in Ohio after his own father narrowly escaped being murdered in 2007.
Antoon has struggled with forgiveness. Now he says he’s at peace because he thinks forgiveness is the way forward for a unified Iraq. Even as ruthless, stateless terrorists have infiltrated his country this summer and repeated the kinds of faith-based killings that claimed the lives of his aunt and uncle, he made a point to distinguish between Muslims and fundamentalist insurgents.
“There are many wonderful Muslims that I encountered when I was living in Baghdad,” he said. “I believe there are many wonderful Muslims, who love Christians, who love Jews, who don’t agree with the radical theology.”
Fadi Rassam contributed research and Arabic translation.
Assyrian International News Agency