March 12, 2003
Worlds apart on Chaldean crisis
Some Iraqis say religion not the root of conflict; refugees in U.S. disagree
By MARCUS STERN
Copley News Service
HARMOTA, Iraq – Vegetable farmer Sabah Hana, an Iraqi Catholic, said he spent 10 years in Saddam Hussein's infamous Baghdad prison, Abu Ghraib. His brother, also a Chaldean Catholic, was executed in the same prison in 1987.
But politics – not religion – caused their problems, he said.
"There were many Christians in prison with me," he said. "But it wasn't because they were Christians. It was because they opposed Saddam."
While Chaldean advocates, human rights groups and immigration lawyers in the United States argue that Chaldean Catholics are targets of religious persecution in Iraq, many Chaldeans in semi-autonomous northern Iraq paint a different picture.
"I haven't heard of any (religious) persecution," said Ibrahim Yosuf Elias, bishop of the northeastern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah. "There have been no problems for any of the Chaldeans of Iraq."
Elias was careful to note that many Chaldeans and other Iraqi Christians have been jailed and killed for their political opposition to Hussein. But he emphatically rejected the notion that it was because of their religion.
"Saddam does not tolerate political opposition," he said in his church office, surrounded by pictures of himself with Pope John Paul II.
On the other side of the globe, the notion that religious persecution does not exist in Iraq was hotly disputed.
Cheri Attix, a San Diego immigration attorney who has represented about a dozen Chaldean asylum seekers, said the bishop's comments "are absurd. . . . The human-rights reports speak for themselves."
Bill Frelick, director of Amnesty International's refugee program, said the situation is not as black and white as the long-distance debate suggests.
"In that part of the world religion isn't regarded as articles of faith, as it is in the U.S," he said in an interview from Washington. "Religion in many cases is an identity that attaches to you. Religion and ethnicity and nationality and politics all get mooshed together. So to me it's a matter of splitting hairs. It all boils down to the same thing: You are going to be persecuted."
Iraq has experienced an exodus since the 1991 Gulf War, Elias said.
The war and the sanctions that followed have left the Iraqi economy in ruins. Most of those fleeing are professionals, including engineers, who are seeking better economic conditions and jobs in Europe or the United States, he said.
He had a sharp retort to those who tell the United States and other governments that, as Christians, they risk being killed or jailed if they are returned to Iraq, at least in the semi-autonomous north.
"They are lying," Frelick said. "They are just trying to get (immigration) benefits from your government. . . . We have all the freedoms and rights of others here."
While reliable numbers are hard to come by, it is frequently estimated that 150,000 Chaldeans – Iraqi Catholics – have settled in the United States. Detroit and San Diego are the number one and number two destinations, respectively.
There also are an estimated 100,000 Iraqi Christians known as Assyrians living in the United States. They are Iraqi Christians affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox Church rather than the Catholic Church.
San Diego-area Chaldeans reacted skeptically to Bishop Elias' remarks.
The Rev. Michael Bazzi of St. Peter's Chaldean Catholic Church in El Cajon speculated that Elias "is afraid; that's why he said that. He is scared and afraid because if he speaks one word against Saddam he will be killed."
Bazzi said the bishop could be killed even though he is in the area controlled by Kurds. "Even if he is there, Saddam's agents will kill him. It is miserable for all Christians in Iraq. They are second-class citizens and they cannot talk."
Said one Chaldean refugee living in El Cajon since 1994: "If this bishop gets out of Iraq, I am sure he would say something quite different."
Elias, after conducting Mass on Sunday at the old Chaldean church in Sulaimaniyah, replied to their skepticism.
"I don't say it out of fear of Saddam," he said. "We really don't have a problem with religious persecution. Our only problem is that we can't get a bell for our new church."
The new church is under construction.
The old church, its plaster walls cracked, carries the heavy odor of kerosene, which is used to fire lanterns that heat the church during Masses and other rites.
During a recent ceremony marking the Stations of the Cross, the electricity failed and Elias was forced to use candlelight to read passages from the Bible.
The Chaldean village of Harmota is a two-hour drive from Sulaimaniyah. It is a remote farming hamlet within a rural portion of northern Iraq that was declared a Kurdish-controlled zone after the Persian Gulf War.
A fourth-century monastery sits on a hillside overlooking Harmota. It has been built and destroyed many times.
Most recently, Hussein's soldiers used dynamite to blow it up in 1988.
The monastery's destruction was part of a broad scorched-earth campaign targeting Kurdish resistance to Hussein's Baath Party rule and his efforts to "Arabize" Iraq.
Most of the dwellings in this heavily Kurdish area were destroyed. The same year in which Hussein's forces destroyed the monastery, Kurds say, they also attacked villages in the region with deadly chemicals.
U.S. and British warplanes for a decade have kept Hussein from imposing direct control over the region. This has created an opening for a Kurdish government organized under two separate parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. The PUK, which controls this area, is providing much of the money to build the new Chaldean church in Sulaimaniyah.
Harmota awakens each morning like a 19th-century agrarian hamlet.
Chickens, roosters, goats and cows run along its unpaved streets. Women line up to fill containers with water from a pipe of constantly flowing water. Children head off to school on foot. Men let out the livestock and march out to plow their fields.
Hana, the vegetable farmer, hitches two donkeys to his plow. The rich, dark soil of this swath of the world's "Fertile Crescent" will produce wheat and a range of vegetables that are the lifeblood of the community.
Muslims and Christians say they co-exist peacefully here. Jacob Ibrahim Meekha, a Chaldean English teacher at Harmota's intermediate school, said Chaldeans have Easter egg hunts and decorate their houses traditionally for Christmas. Muslims frequently share in the social festivity of Christian holidays, and Christians reciprocate on Muslim holidays, he said.
There are tensions and differences. For instance, interfaith marriages are rare and heavily discouraged. Muslims for a long time were reluctant to eat with Christians.
But that has largely disappeared over time, especially in the urban areas.
Signs of harmony dominate: Christian and Muslim children sit side by side in Harmota's schools. Christian and Muslim women wait with each other to use the same spring and shoulder their containers home with each other. Men sip tea and work the fields together, regardless of whether they are Muslim or Christian.
"Everybody gets along," Meekha said. "We have complete freedom, not only religious, but for all our traditions. Of course, hatred (and fear) of Saddam reaches us all."
Copley News Service correspondent Jerry Kammer in Washington contributed to this report.