IRAQ. 30 May 2003. (Barnabas Fund Report) Because of lawlessness and hostility from some Muslim extremists the Iraqi Christian community is increasingly vulnerable, but coalition forces are failing to provide adequate protection.
Christian women who go out in public without a head covering have been threatened and spat upon. Christian owned shops selling alcohol have been burnt down and at least two shop owners have been killed. Leaders of the various Christian communities have called upon the coalition for protection but have been turned away empty handed.
Rev Nadheer, ministering in a poor area of Baghdad, twice went to the local American commander to plead with him for American troops to protect the churches, but was refused. Next he approached General Jay Garner (at that time still overseeing the reconstruction of post-war Iraq) with two bishops to make the same request. Garner told him, "We have come to give you freedom and democracy. You must trust me as I trust you." The Christians replied, "For forty years we have not had freedom, so we trust no government. And we don't know what democracy is." Garner then directed them to see the local commander in their area. Nadheer duly visited this commander a third time, but with the same unhelpful result.
The London Times (Monday 26 May) reports from Basra that Hassib al-Mansour, a Christian shopkeeper, is now too afraid to open for business. One hundred shops owned by Christians have been burnt down since the fall of the regime. Next door, Hassib's brother's shop was one of them. The two families are now left without any means of support; the only food they have is what they stockpiled during the war. They appealed for help from the local police and the British forces, but without apparent success. "Frankly the British did nothing," he said.
Christians alongside their Muslim neighbours have been badly affected by widespread looting. In Baghdad Rev Nadheer said forty of his parishioners have had their homes looted. However in some parts of Basra it is being used as a tool of intimidation against Christians. In some cases looters have said that when they return they will kill the occupants because of their faith. This faith also identifies them with the "Christian occupiers", the very Coalition forces which are tragically failing to protect them.
While Christians rejoice with other Iraqis at being free of Saddam, they also feel acutely vulnerable as religious leaders suddenly find themselves being able to call for what they want. Essentially all Shia leaders are calling for the establishment of Islamic law (Shari'ah) and two of the most prominent, Sheikh Mohammed al-Fartousi in Baghdad and Moqtada Sadr in Kufa to the south, have called for its application on both Christians and Muslims. Thus Christians, who do not comply with Islamic injunctions banning alcohol or requiring women to wear headscarves, are in genuine danger; this is not from the Muslim leaders directly, but rather from followers who wish to realise the Islamic vision and take the law into their own hands. Shari'ah does not call for the death penalty for these infringements, but vigilantes are, as anywhere, a law unto themselves.
It is the de-facto alcohol ban in Basra that has led to 100 Christian shops being burnt down. Under Saddam's regime, Muslims could not sell alcohol - but were able to buy it; indeed many Christian shopkeepers report that some of their best customers came from the Muslim community. Christians however were permitted to sell alcohol, and thus many Christian shops stocked it - 148 before the war. It is these shops that are now being targeted. "We are Christians but we are few in number - we have no strength. Now we can only get food to eat by stealing but we are not thieves. We can't even sleep because we are so afraid," said a former shopkeeper. "We don't know who is doing this - whether they are Iraqis or outsiders but they are terrorists," added another. "In the dictator's time we could sell alcohol but now there is democracy and freedom and we are not allowed to," said Hassib al-Mansour. Two shop owners were shot dead on 8 May, and there are unconfirmed reports of another owner and a Christian bystander being killed. On that same day 15 of Basra's 1000 Christian families fled the city. Christian leaders have met with Muslim leaders, who condemned these attacks and pledged to find the perpetrators.
Women are also targets in areas where Shari'ah is being pushed forward. Basra's schools recently told all female students, including Christians, to wear headscarves (this order was subsequently withdrawn, due to protest). Some hospitals and clinics even as far north as Baghdad are refusing to treat unveiled women. Christian girls in some parts of Basra are afraid to go to school in case they are kidnapped. Louis George Hannina, an official at the St Theresa Catholic Church, said: "Both my daughters are so frightened they haven't left the house for a month. It is terrible for us."