ED WEST From: The Australian
THE Arabs once had a saying about the British: “Better to be their enemy, for that way they will try to buy you; for if you are their friend, they will most certainly sell you.” For Iraq’s Christians, it has proved to be sage advice.
It is a lesson learned by 25-year-old engineering student Wissam Shamouy, an Assyrian Orthodox Christian from Bakhdida, in Nineveh province, who fled after jihadis gave him a second warning: leave or die. He made his way to England because he spoke the language, and was told Britain helped with “humanity protection”. Instead, he was arrested for arriving with false documents and imprisoned for 122 days.
“I had never been in prison in Iraq,” he says. “My mother didn’t know anything about me for three months – nobody did.”
He now survives on the generosity of other Iraqi Christians and his church, receives no income support and has been waiting since last September for news of his asylum case.
Nineveh is the historic homeland of this Semitic minority, who trace their faith back to the 2nd century, and their Aramaic tongue much further. But it is also an al-Qa’ida stronghold and its capital, Mosul, is a dangerous place to be a Christian. In October 2008, 10,000 fled the city after Sunni gangs went on a rampage that left 13 Christians dead.
The exodus of the Christians from Iraq is the great ignored story of our age. Up to 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq at the time of the US-led invasion, but just 400,000 remain, many of them elderly people who have used up their savings to pay for their children to escape.
Since 2003, 950 Christians have been murdered, and more than 60 churches bombed, the worst incident being the massacre of 50 worshippers at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on October 31, 2010. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recently warned that “the end of Christianity in Iraq” was approaching.
Within Iraq, there has been a steady flow north to the relative safety of Kurdistan, but they are not staying, for land is scarce, unemployment the norm and Christians are subject to “crime, mafia or militia”, in the words of one cleric.
Assyrians have a historic enmity towards the Kurds, and do not want to be part of a Kurdish state. Yet Britain and other countries deport Christians to the “safe” Kurdish zone.
Iraqi Christians are connected to an ancient civilisation enriched by many layers of language, religion and culture. Islamisation is drawing a black veil over that rich, colourful history.