The link below is to an article that looks at the rising pressure on Christians across the world in Islamic countries.
Christians targeted as political tension builds in weeks leading to parliamentary polls.
ISTANBUL, March 5 (CDN) — Political tensions ahead of parliamentary elections in Iraq on Sunday (March 7) have left at least eight Chaldean Christians dead in the last three weeks and hundreds of families fleeing Mosul.
“The concern of Christians in Mosul is growing in the face of what is happening in the city,” said Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk Louis Sako. “The tension and struggle between political forces is creating an atmosphere of chaos and congestion. Christians are victims of political tension between political groups, but maybe also by fundamentalist sectarian cleansing.”
On Feb. 23 the killing of Eshoee Marokee, a Christian, and his two sons in their home in front of other family members sent shock waves across the Christian community. The murder took place amid a string of murders that triggered the mass exodus of families to the surrounding towns and provinces.
“It is not the first time Christians are attacked or killed,” said the archbishop of the Syrian Catholic Church in Mosul, Georges Casmoussa. “The new [element] in this question is to be killed in their own homes.”
The capital of Nineveh Province some 400 kilometers (250 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Mosul has been known as the most dangerous city for Christians. At least 275 Assyrian Christians have been murdered by Islamic insurgents since 2003, according to a report prepared by the International Committee for The Rights of Indigenous Mesopotamians.
While in 2009 the organization listed 16 deaths, since January there have been at least 13 murders, eight of which took place the second half of February.
The movement of internally displaced persons to surrounding areas started in mid-February and tripled between Feb. 24 and Feb. 27 to about 683 families, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Although the rate of displacement into areas around Mosul has slowed, the report estimates that 720 families had fled the city as of March 1. This represents about 4,320 people.
Christian Students Affected
The murders have not only driven families away from the cities but have also kept students away from university. Three of the Christians killed in February were university students. As a result, around 2,000 Christian students are staying away from their classes until the tension in Mosul eases.
“We believe that the attack against these students was somehow related to the political situation in Mosul,” said General Secretary of the Chaldo-Assyrian Student and Youth Union Kaldo Oghanna. “This has affected our people in Mosul badly, and they have left the university.”
Oghanna said that the union has proposed that the Ministry of Education open a new university in a safer area of the Nineveh plains for the nearly 3,000 Christian undergraduate students and 250 graduate students studying in Mosul. He also said that they have appealed to the university’s administration to make necessary exceptions for the Christian students who have not attended classes in the last few weeks.
Although some local Christian leaders say they expect the tension to ease after Sunday, security may not improve as the Christian community is caught in political tensions between Arabs and Kurds vying for control of the province. Archbishop Casmoussa said regardless of who is behind the murders, the Christian community demands justice.
“We urge the Central and Regional Government to pursue the murders and their masters and judge them according to Iraqi laws, even if they are supported by religious or political parties,” Casmoussa said. “Enough is enough. Are we to pay the price of political struggles or ambitions?”
Sako said that in other cities security has improved, and that Christians are eager to cast their votes.
The election on March 7 will decide the 325 members of the Council of Representatives of Iraq, who will then elect the prime minister and president of Iraq. Of these seats, five are reserved for the nation’s Christian minority, estimated at around 600,000. Most of them live in the Nineveh plain.
At the beginning of the Iraq war, there were about 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq. Iraq’s population is roughly 30 million.
Report from Compass Direct News
Forced from Buddhist homeland, dangers arise in Hindu-majority Nepal.
KATHMANDU, Nepal, February 23 (CDN) — Thrust from their homes in Bhutan after Buddhist rulers embarked on an ethnic and religious purge, Christian refugees in Nepal face hostilities from Hindus and others.
In Sunsari district in southeastern Nepal, a country that is more than 80 percent Hindu, residents from the uneducated segments of society are especially apt to attack Christians, said Purna Kumal, district coordinator for Awana Clubs International, which runs 41 clubs in refugee camps to educate girls about the Bible.
“In Itahari, Christians face serious trouble during burials,” Kumal told Compass. “Last month, a burial party was attacked by locals who dug up the grave and desecrated it.”
Earlier this month, he added, a family in the area expelled one of its members from their home because he became a Christian.
Bhutan began expelling almost one-eighth of its citizens for being of Nepali origin or practicing faiths other than Buddhism in the 1980s. The purge lasted into the 1990s.
“Christians, like Hindus and others, were told to leave either their faith or the country,” said Gopi Chandra Silwal, who pastors a tiny church for Bhutanese refugees in a refugee camp in Sanischare, a small village in eastern Nepal’s Morang district. “Many chose to leave their homeland.”
Persecution in Bhutan led to the spread of Christianity in refugee camps in Nepal. Though exact figures are not available, refugee Simon Gazmer estimates there are about 7,000-8,000 Christians in the camps – out of a total refugee population of about 85,000 – with many others having left for other countries. There are 18 churches of various faiths in the camps, he said.
“Faith-healing was an important factor in the spread of Christianity in the camps,” said Gazmer, who belongs to Believers’ Church and is awaiting his turn to follow five members of his family to Queensland, Australia. “A second reason is the high density in the camps.”
Each refugee family lives in a single-room hut, with one outdoor toilet for every two families. The Nepalese government forbids them to work for fear it will create unemployment for local residents.
Life was even harder for them before 2006, when Nepal was a Hindu kingdom where conversions were a punishable offence.
“When I began preaching in 2000, I had to do it secretly,” said Pastor Silwal of Morang district. “We could meet only surreptitiously in small groups. I used my hut as a make-shift church while many other groups were forced to rent out rooms outside the camp.”
A fact-finding mission in 2004 by Brussels-based Human Rights Without Frontiers found that police pulled down a church structure built by Pentecostal Christians in the Beldangi camp by orders of Nepal’s home ministry. The rights group also reported that Hindu refugees ostracized the Christians, who had proceeded to rent a room outside the camp to meet three times a week for worship services and Bible study.
When the Jesus Loves Gospel Ministries (JLGM) organization sent officials from India to the Pathri camp in Morang in 2006, they found that local residents resentful of the refugees had taken note of a baptism service at a pond in a nearby jungle.
“In August, we were planning another baptism program,” JLGM director Robert Singh reported. “But the villagers put deadly poisonous chemicals in the water … Some of the young people went to take a bath ahead of our next baptism program. They found some fish floating on the water and, being very hungry – the refugees only get a very small ration, barely enough to survive on – they took some of the fish and ate them. Three of them died instantly.”
Singh also stated that poisoned sweets were left on the premises of the refugee school in the camp. They were discovered in time to avert another tragedy.
Life for Christian refugees improved after Nepal saw a pro-democracy movement in 2006 that caused the army-backed government of Hindu king Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah to collapse. The king was forced to reinstate parliament, and lawmakers sought to curb his powers by declaring Nepal a secular state.
Though Christian refugees are now allowed to run churches openly in the camps, ill will toward them has yet to end. When Pastor Silwal asked camp authorities to allow him to open a church in 2006, Hindu neighbors protested, saying it would cause disturbances. Camp authorities allowed him to open a tiny church in a separate room on the condition that its activities would not disturb neighbors.
Earlier in his life in Bhutan, said the 40-year-old Pastor Silwal, he had been a stern Hindu who rebuked his two sisters mercilessly for becoming Christians. He forbade them to visit their church, which gathered in secret due to the ban on non-Buddhist religions in place at the time. They were also forbidden to bring the Bible inside their house in Geylegphug, a district in southern Bhutan close to the Indian border.
“I became a believer in 1988 after a near-death experience,” Pastor Silwal told Compass. “I contracted malaria and was on the verge of death since no one could diagnose it. All the priests and shamans consulted by my Hindu family failed to cure me. One day, when I thought I was going to die I had a vision.”
The pastor said he saw a white-robed figure holding a Bible in one hand and beckoning to him with the other. “Have faith in me,” the figure told him. “I will cure you.”
When he woke from his trance, Silwal asked his sisters to fetch him a copy of the Bible. They were alarmed at first, thinking he was going to beat them. But at his insistence, they nervously fetched the book from the thatched roof of the cow shed where they had kept it hidden. Pastor Silwal said he tried to read the Bible but was blinded by his fever and lost consciousness.
When he awoke, to his amazement and joy, the fever that had racked him for nearly five months was gone.
Pastor Silwal lost his home in 1990 to the ethnic and religious purge that forced him to flee along with thousands of others. It wasn’t until 1998, he said, that he and his family formally converted to Christianity after seven years of grueling hardship in the refugee camp, where he saw “people dying like flies due to illness, lack of food and the cold.”
“My little son too fell ill and I thought he would die,” Silwal said. “But he was cured; we decided to embrace Christianity formally.”
In 2001, Bhutan4Christ reported the number of Bhutanese Christians to be around 19,000, with the bulk of them – more than 10,500 – living in Nepal.
When persecution by the Bhutanese government began, frightened families raced towards towns in India across the border. Alarmed by the influx of Bhutanese refugees, Indian security forces packed them into trucks and dumped them in southern Nepal.
Later, when the homesick refugees tried to return home, Indian security forces blocked the way. There were several rounds of scuffles, resulting in police killing at least three refugees.
Simon Gazmer was seven when his family landed at the bank of the Mai river in Jhapa district in southeastern Nepal. Now 24, he still remembers the desolation that reigned in the barren land, where mists and chilly winds rose from the river, affecting the morale and health of the refugees. They lived in bamboo shacks with thin plastic sheets serving as roofs; they had little food or medicine.
“My uncle Padam Bahadur had tuberculosis, and we thought he would die,” said Gazmer, who lives in Beldangi II, the largest of seven refugee camps. “His recovery made us realize the grace of God, and our family became Christians.”
The plight of the refugees improved after the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stepped in, receiving permission from the government of Nepal to run the refugee camps. According to the UNHCR, there were 111,631 registered refugees in seven camps run in the two districts of Jhapa and Morang.
Though Nepal held 15 rounds of bilateral talks with Bhutan for the repatriation of the refugees, the Buddhist government dragged its feet, eventually breaking off talks. Meantime, international donors assisting the refugee camps began to grow weary, resulting in the slashing of aid and food. Finally, seven western governments – Canada, Norway, Denmark, New Zealand, Australia, the United States and the Netherlands – persuaded Nepal to allow the refugees to resettle in third countries.
The exodus of the refugees started in 2007. Today, according to the UNHCR, more than 26,000 have left for other countries, mostly the United States. A substantial number of the nearly 85,000 people left in the camps are ready to follow suit.
Although they now have a new life to look forward to, many of Bhutan’s Christian refugees are saddened by the knowledge that their homeland still remains barred to them. So some are looking at the next best thing: a return to Nepal, now that it is secular, where they will feel more at home than in the West.
“I don’t have grand dreams,” said Pastor Silwal. “In Australia I want to enroll in a Bible college and become a qualified preacher. Then I want to return to Nepal to spread the word of God.”
Report from Compass Direct News
The Bible cautions that “The first to state his case seems right until another comes and cross-examines him,” reports Baptist Press.
Unfortunately, this proverb has become increasingly actionable in recent years as Christians and their beliefs are being presented unfavorably — alternately as a monolithic bloc and then as fragmented and waning in numbers — by a media that at times is not too sophisticated and at other times apparently is just malicious. Even some evangelicals have shown a disappointing lack of discernment in claiming to know evangelicals (the “I am one of them” credential), but then advocating views that seem at odds with what is obvious or established about evangelicals.
Probably the most egregious example of late was the media’s representation of the American Religious Identity Survey 2008 (pertaining to adults) released in March 2009 by Trinity College of Hartford, Conn.
The cover of Newsweek proclaimed “The decline and fall of Christian America” and the magazine reported that according to the survey, “the percentage of self-identified [adult] Christians has fallen 10 percent since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.”
Editor Jon Meacham opined, “This is not to say that the Christian God is dead,” he said, “but that [H]e is less of a force in American politics and culture than at any other time in recent memory.”
He conceded that the U.S. is “decisively shaped by religious faith,” but offered that “our politics and our culture are, in the main, less influenced by movements and arguments of an explicitly Christian character than they were even five years ago,” adding that he thought this was a “good thing” for both the political culture and Christianity. In his view “the decline and fall of the religious right’s notion of a Christian America creates a calmer political environment” and in his estimation this perceived shift “may help open the way for a more theologically serious religious life.”
In examining the A.R.I.S. data, the Washington Post simply stated “15 Percent of Americans Have No Religion” but offered the same data as Newsweek that “the percentage of [adult] Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.”
“The increase in people labeling themselves in more generic Christian terms corresponds strongly with the decline in people identifying themselves as Protestant, the survey found,” Michele Boorstein wrote.
She offered one insight to help explain the shift, but stopped short of any meaningful analysis.
“People calling themselves mainline Protestants, including Methodists and Lutherans, have dropped to 13 percent of the [adult] population, down from 19 percent in 1990. The number of people who describe themselves as generically ‘Protestant’ went from approximately 17 million in 1990 to 5 million.”
The headline in USA Today read, “Most religious groups in USA have lost ground, survey finds” adding to the chorus about the “percentage of people who call themselves in some way Christian has dropped more than 11% [of adults] in a generation.
“These dramatic shifts in just 18 years are detailed in the new American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS)…. It finds that, despite growth and immigration that has added nearly 50 million adults to the U.S. population, almost all religious denominations have lost ground since the first ARIS survey in 1990.”
The writer, Cathy Grossman, offered some contextualization by recognizing the shift in our population from immigration, but she fell short in pursuing what this shift means to the changes reported by the A.R.I.S. 2008 study. Later she also observed that sexual abuse by Catholic clergy might have contributed to some changes in the numbers of those who identified themselves as Catholics, but said nothing about other similar influences that might have shaped respondents’ answers to the poll.
Even the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ed Stetzer, director of LifeWay Research, weighed in.
He applauded the USA Today account of the A.R.I.S. 2008 findings and lauded the A.R.I.S. methodology. He also tagged on his observation that “denominations and denominationalism are in decline, the cultural influence of Christianity continues to slip, more people are describing themselves as non-religious (now at 15%) and minority religions are increasing in popularity (like Islam and Wicca).
“Baptists are shown to be an aging group that continues to lose the younger generations and leaders,” he added.
What each of these assessments misses is what the research actually said, and even what the study’s principal investigators concluded about their findings.
On the first page of the report, researchers Barry Kosmin and Ariela Keysar offered this conclusion in the highlights section of their study:
“Overall the 1990-2008 ARIS time series shows that changes in religious self-identification in the first decade of the 21st century have been moderate in comparison to the 1990s, which was a period of significant shifts in the religious composition of the United States.”
The researchers might have been too passive in their assessment that the changes from 2001 to 2008 were “moderate” compared to the “significant shifts” from 1990 to 2000.
Look, for instance, at the common data highlighted by the mainstream media that “the percentage of [adult] Americans identifying as Christians has dropped to 76 percent of the population, down from 86 percent in 1990.”
The data points are factual, but the way the data are presented is not.
The reality is that the percentage of adult Americans who claimed to be Christians dropped from 86 percent in 1990 to 77.7 percent in 2001 and THEN to 76 percent in 2008. In other words, almost none of the change happened in the last 8 years of the study. Even Kosmin and Keysar stated that “the most dramatic changes in the balance of religious sentiments seem to have occurred during the 1990s.”
Moreover, these percentages do not reflect an exodus from Christianity or an ineffectiveness of the faith.
The A.R.I.S. data show the absolute number of adult Christians actually increased from 151,225,000 in 1990 to 159,514,000 in 2001 (a gain of nearly 8.3 million) and grew to 173,402,000 in 2008 (increasing by nearly 14 million). During this same time the U.S. adult population as a whole grew by 32.5 million in the 1990s and by 20 million from 2001 to 2008.
What a different perspective the numbers actually present.
In the time from 2001 to 2008, the U.S. adult population grew by 20 million and 14 million of these were Christians!
Taken in the whole, Newsweek got the story absolutely wrong. The proper interpretation is not a “fall and decline of Christian America” but that the fall or decline has substantially stopped (or at least dramatically slowed). To be frank, an objective interpretation shows we have not become a post-Christian America, but does suggest that perhaps that we are no longer moving toward becoming a secular America.
Such a conclusion is even more plausible from a true look at the growth of “nones” (those claiming no religious identity or connection). Most mainstream media proclaimed the numbers in this category had nearly doubled in 18 years, with the “nones” portion of the U.S. adult population leaping from 8.2 percent in 1990 to 15.0 percent in 2008.
But the truth is almost all of the gains occurred in the 1990s (8.2 percent to 14.1 percent) and less than one percent of the shift happened from 2001 to 2008 (0.9 percent to be exact).
There are other elements of the study that also received almost no mention.
In discussing some of these points, I do not mean to suggest that the study was poorly designed or that the methodology was lacking in any respect. However, every study has limits to what can be inferred from the information it presents because of limits in the design or other aspects of the study.
For instance, the three A.R.I.S. surveys that compose the whole work were self-reporting. In other words, respondents described themselves; the data were not obtained from formal observations by trained investigators using set criteria to categorize participants’ actual behavior.
Likewise, the A.R.I.S. project is not a longitudinal study of a single sample of people, but a series of three surveys that gathered information from different samples in different time periods, each contextualized by different circumstances that should be examined for how they informed respondents’ answers. At any other point during the two long time spans between surveys, given a different set of influences, the very same respondents could have responded remarkably different than they did at the actual moment in time they responded for the 2001 and 2008 surveys, respectively. Essentially, there are three data points out of an 18-year period and graphing a trend using just these three plotted coordinates is a guess at best.
Consider that the 2008 survey was conducted from February through November, during a highly contentious presidential campaign in which faith voters were a highly sought-after constituency. Ironically, during this same season, religion was highly negatively portrayed, and this could have been an interacting factor.
For example, look at the data reported about the absolute numbers and the percentages of the adult population for those who identified themselves with the United Churches of Christ. In 1990, 0.2 percent (or 438,000) claimed affiliation, climbing dramatically to 0.7 percent (or 1,378,000) in 2001, and dropping almost as dramatically to 0.3 percent (or 736,000) in 2008.
What might explain such a dramatic swing in the numbers for this denomination?
During the same time the 2008 survey was being conducted, then Sen. Obama’s pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, was the subject of almost nightly reports on television, daily articles in America’s newspapers and hourly commentary on radio. Although some defenses were offered on behalf of Obama for his relationship to the controversial figure, there was no positive press for Wright. In fact, after attacks by his Democrat rivals as well as GOP candidates citing Wright’s anti-white tirades and anti-America rhetoric, in May 2008, Obama dropped his 20-year membership with his home church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago. Wright’s denominational affiliation was repeated in nearly every news report.
It can’t be stated definitively that this was a factor, but it certainly appears that it could have been a major influence in how participants in the study responded when contacted by phone.
But Wright was not the only person of faith who came under fire. During the two months just prior to the February start of the 2008 study, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was a popular subject in the mainstream media and much of the coverage repeated the criticisms of him for the more controversial aspects of his faith tradition. Likewise, Southern Baptist Mike Huckabee was portrayed more as a former Baptist minister with conservative views on marriage and the unborn (sometimes favorably and sometimes not for these views), and less as a governor with 10 years of executive experience. Then there was the mainstream media’s almost totally negative portrayal of vice presidential candidate and evangelical Sarah Palin.
Given these almost constant negative portrayals just before and also during the timeframe for the 2008 survey, the wonder is that the data didn’t show more than just a small negative change among those who identified themselves as Christians.
Numbers are important but only in context of the circumstances which shaped them.
This is true when assessing Christianity in America and also when looking at what research shows about the state of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
Residents flee Swat Valley where fight rages with Islamist insurgents.
ISTANBUL, May 13 (Compass Direct News) – Pakistani Christians in Swat Valley are caught between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military as it assaults the stronghold where sharia (Islamic law) rules.
Nearly 15,000 troops have been deployed in the picturesque Swat Valley in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and neighboring Afghanistan. Troops came after months of peace negotiations collapsed between the Taliban Islamist insurgents who have imposed sharia in the valley and the central government last month. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis have fled the war-ravaged area for fear of a full military assault.
On May 10 (Sunday) the army ordered residents to flee Swat Valley during a lull in fighting. Aid groups estimate that as many as 1.3 million could be displaced by the fighting, according to The Guardian.
Christians are particularly vulnerable in the mass exodus. Working as poor day laborers, they occupy the lowest rung of the social ladder and have little money for costly transport or to stock up on resources before fleeing.
“Christians are poor, and like in any conflict, the prices of transportation and commodities skyrocket,” said Ashar Dean, assistant director of communication of the Church of Pakistan Peshawar diocese. “Some had to go on foot to flee the valley.”
The Taliban had ratcheted up pressure on Christians, other religious minorities and liberal Muslims in Swat to live according to Islamic fundamentalist norms. They were forced to grow beards and don Islamic attire for fear of their safety in an attempt to blend in with Muslim residents of Swat.
Many Christians also fled for insufficient funds to pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert to Islam.
In February the Pakistani government ceded control of Swat valley to the Taliban, who imposed their version of sharia and established clerical rule over the legal system. But Christians had seen warning signs long before the formal sharia announcement. In the past year the Taliban burned or bombed more than 200 girls’ schools in Swat, including one that housed a Catholic church.
Religious minorities live in a precarious situation in the Muslim-dominated country. The legal system informally discriminates against non-Muslims, and in recent years Christian villages have been ransacked by Muslim mobs incited by dubious reports that a Quran had been desecrated.
The Taliban’s attempts to spread out from Swat into neighboring areas, however, have increased feelings of insecurity among the nation’s 3 million Christians.
“The threat of the Taliban is a hanging sword above the necks of Christians,” said Sohail Johnson, chief coordinator of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan. “Christians could be in the situation where they would have to accept Islam or die.”
Swat Christians Flee
Approximately 40-60 Christian families lived in Swat as congregants at the Church of Pakistan. But since Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani on April 8 announced a military mission into Swat, nearly all have fled to nearby districts.
Most are in refugee housing in Mardan in the NWFP. They stay in a technical school owned by the Church of Pakistan, a congregation composed of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Lutherans
The school dismissed its students for the school year early to make room for the refugees. Opening its doors to the displaced Christians was necessary due to government inaction toward religious minorities, said Yousaf Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace.
“The government is giving protection to Muslims, but the Christians are through waiting for their services,” he said.
Similar measures are being employed in hundreds of schools. To provide for the massive influx in refugees, the Pakistan government ended the school year early in districts near Swat and opened the schools to refugees for temporary housing. Teachers are also assisting in the humanitarian relief effort, Benjamin said.
Some Christians have complained of facing discrimination in refugee camps. Government relief workers forbade Christians, Hindus and Sikhs from setting up tents or eating with Muslim refugees, according to online news site Christian Today.
But ultimately Christians will not be able to return to Swat Valley unless the Taliban threat is completely removed, Christian relief groups said. Their possessions and property will otherwise always be under threat.
“Christians will face terrible persecution if the Taliban is not controlled by the government,” Johnson said. “They will easily attack churches, schools and other Christian institutions.”
Rehman Malik, the interior minister, said Pakistan’s military operation would continue until the last Taliban fighter had been ousted. Since April 8, government troops have killed an estimated 751 militants.
There are believed to be 5,000 Taliban militants in Swat Valley. The government hopes to minimize civilian casualties through precision air strikes and delivering emergency humanitarian aid.
Pakistan’s government has come under harsh national and international criticism for its negotiations with the Taliban and ceding control of Swat. They fear the Taliban could seize control of the nation’s nuclear weapons.
Report from Compass Direct News
As renewed violence in Mosul halts return, refugees wait in Turkish legal limbo.
ISTANBUL, November 14 (Compass Direct News) – In this Turkish city’s working-class neighborhood of Kurtulus, Arabic can be heard on the streets, signs are printed in the Arabic alphabet and Iraqis congregate in tea shops.
In 99-percent Muslim Turkey, most of these Iraqis are not Muslims. And they are not in Turkey by choice. They are Christian refugees who fled their homeland to escape the murderous violence that increasingly has been directed at them.
It is hard to tell how many of Mosul’s refugees from the recent wave of attacks have made their way to Istanbul, but finding these residents here is not hard. A middle-aged Iraqi refugee who fled Mosul five months ago now attends a Syrian Orthodox Church in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Tarlabasi, where gypsies, transvestites, and immigrants from Turkey’s east live in hopes of a better life in Istanbul.
Declining to give his name, the refugee said there is no future for Christians in Iraq and that nearly everyone he knew there wanted to leave the country. He said the only hope for Iraqi Christians is for Western countries to open their doors to Christian Iraqi refugees.
“We don’t have hope,” he said. “If these doors aren’t opened, we will be killed.”
Since October, violence in Mosul has pushed more than 12,000 Christians from their homes and left more than two dozen dead, according to U.N. and Christian organizations. In the face of Mosul violence, Iraqi Christians flee to Turkey before settling permanently in another country, usually in a place where their family has gone out before them.
Christian Sisters Killed
Weeks after the mass exodus of Mosul Christians to surrounding villages, Turkey and other nations, around one-third of families reportedly have returned due to the presence of 35,000 army and police and the Iraqi government offering cash grants of up to $800.
But those returning Christians were shaken again on Wednesday (Nov. 12), when Islamic militants stormed into the house of two Syrian Catholic sisters, Lamia’a Sabih and Wala’a Saloha, killing them and severely injuring their mother. They then bombed their house and detonated a second explosive when the police arrived, which killed three more.
The Christian family had recently returned after having fled Mosul. Many believe this attack will deter other Christians from returning to Mosul, and there are reports of Christians again leaving the area.
There has been a steady exodus of Christians from Iraq since the first Gulf War in 1991. The church in Iraq dates from the beginning of Christianity, but the population has plummeted by 50 percent in the last 20 years. The outflow of Iraqi Christians spiked in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion.
Although Iraq as a whole has seen a dramatic decrease in violence due to last year’s surge in U.S. troops, the flight of Christians to Turkey has grown. One-third of the 18,000 refugees who registered in Turkey last year are from Iraq. In Syria, an estimated 40 percent of the 1.2 million Iraqis who have fled Iraq are Christians, though they make up only about 3 percent of Iraq’s population.
Monsignor Francois Yakan, the 50-year-old leader of the Chaldean Church in Turkey, said all Iraqi refugees are undergoing hardships regardless of religion, but that the situation is especially difficult for Christians since there is less support for them in Turkey.
“Muslims have the same difficulty as Christians, but there are more foundations to assist them,” he said. “The government notices Muslim immigrants, but nobody pays attention to us.”
Yakan travels to other countries to raise awareness of the plight of Iraqi Christians, trying to marshal the support of government and church leaders – last week he traveled to France, Romania and Germany. If Western governments don’t wake up to this crisis, he said, the results could be catastrophic.
“People don’t know the plight of Iraqi Christians. They have no government, no soldiers, and no power,” he said. “Christianity in Iraq is ending. Why aren’t they noticing this?”
Strangers in Strange Land
The unnamed Iraqi refugee in Tarlabasi said not even pleas from Iraqi priests can make them stay.
“The church in Iraq can’t stop the people from leaving because they can’t guarantee their security,” he said.
He came to Istanbul with his family but still has an adult son and daughter in the city. He hopes to join his brother in the United States soon.
A group of Iraqi refugees at a tea shop in the Kurtulus area of Istanbul interrupted their card game to talk to Compass of their troubled lives.
“We can’t find any work,” said Baghdad-born Iraqi Jalal Toma, who acted as the translator for the group. He pointed to a young man at the table and said, “He works moving boxes and carrying things, and they pay him half as much as a Turk for a day’s work.”
All of the men are Chaldean Christians, a Catholic Eastern-rite church whose historical homeland is in northern Iraq, and came from Mosul in recent months. They are chronically under-employed and rely on financial help from family members abroad to make ends meet.
They had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice, taking along their families but leaving behind their cars, houses and most of their possessions. The men hope to join family members who live in foreign countries, but they harbor few hopes that they can ever return to Iraq again.
Work is scarce for refugees and hard to come by legally in Turkey. To survive, most Iraqi Christians rely on money from families abroad or the handful of local church charities that struggle to keep up with the overwhelming volume of refugees, such as the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program, an ecumenical umbrella group that unites the city’s parishes to assist migrants and asylum seekers.
Another such charity is Kasdar, the Chaldean-Assyrian-Syriac Humanitarian, Social and Cultural Organization, run by Yakan, the Chaldean Church leader in Turkey.
He launched Kasdar two years ago to provide a safety net for Christian refugees who live in Turkey’s legal limbo. Kasdar assists all Christians regardless of denomination or faith tradition and has 16 volunteers from an equally diverse background.
Yakan sees thousands of refugees pass through Istanbul each year. Most of them are Chaldean, and he knows of 60-70 people who fled due to the recent October violence in Mosul. He travels constantly to visit Chaldean refugees scattered throughout the country.
When refugees first arrive in Turkey, they must register with the United Nations as asylum seekers. The Turkish police then assign them to one of 35 cities to live in as they wait to receive official refugee status. These Christians face the biggest hardships since they don’t have access to the same social resources as refugees in Istanbul, said Metin Corabatir, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman in Turkey.
“The Chaldean population faces problems in Turkey, especially due to the policy of resettling them to satellite cities,” said Corabatir. “The Chaldeans in Istanbul have NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] and churches to help them, but in satellite cities there is no church or community to help them.”
Most refugees send their children to school at a local center run by Caritas, a Catholic confederation of relief, development and social service organizations. Here, Iraq children receive education and lessons in basic vocational skills.
The wait for legal status can be as short as a few months or a couple of years. But complicated circumstances can push back the wait to five years, 10 years, or even 17 years – as it is now for a man who fled during the first Gulf War, Yakan of the Chaldean Church said.
Another church leader who has helped Christian refugees is 70-year-old Monsignor Yusuf Sag, vicar general of the Syrian Catholic Church in Turkey. His 350-person congregation assembles packets of clothes and food for the refugees.
Many who come to Sag also seek medical help. He has connections with doctors throughout the city, both Muslim and Christian, who offer basic treatment to refugees free of charge. Sag said he tries to help all who come to him, without asking them of their denomination or even their religion.
“Their situation is not a Christian problem, but a human problem,” he said.
Often Iraqi Christians work illegally, where they are vulnerable to extortion. Refugee workers in Istanbul said registered asylum seekers can work legally, but it is not uncommon for employers to garnish their wages or withhold them completely, with the foreigners getting little protection from police.
The Turkish government charges a refugee a residence tax of US$460 a year and will not allow them to leave the country until it is paid, making them remain in the country even longer. With all these hurdles to finding stable employment, many Iraqi refugees are never too far from homelessness.
“There was a family we found living on the streets – a husband, wife and two children,” Yakan said. “They have lived in Istanbul for six months and couldn’t even afford to pay rent.”
His foundation found the family an apartment and assisted them with rent, but they only have enough resources to help for two months.
Kasdar gave similar assistance to 54 families in October. But the organization can only help for a few months at a time and assist the most vulnerable refugees.
Report from Compass Direct News