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Christians in Despair Over Shiite Gains

In Iraq, a hope for true religious freedom is eclipsed by worries about newly assertive Muslim groups.

May 09, 2003|Michael Slackman and Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — When the head of Iraq's largest Christian community tries to lead his congregation in prayer these days, it is often impossible to be heard, even in the front pew of his church.

There used to be a Baath Party office across the street -- an intimidating presence, but a quiet one. Now a group of Shiite Muslims has taken over the building. They have converted it into a mosque and have mounted half a dozen massive speakers on the structure, which they use to broadcast their religious messages into the streets.

The small church is being overwhelmed, and its members are terrified.

"There is no peace, and we are all afraid," said Monsignor Ishlemon Warduni, auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean Patriarch in Iraq. "We are especially afraid of the fanatics."

Under Saddam Hussein's regime, Iraq's more than 800,000 Christians enjoyed freedom to worship, at least while they were inside their churches. Now Christians throughout Iraq are feeling intimidated.

From Mosul in the north to Baghdad in central Iraq and Basra in the south, Christians say they feel like their homes, businesses and churches are islands about to be swept away. They say they are being harassed and threatened by members of Shiite Muslim groups who are grabbing power and who appear eager to transform Iraq into an Islamic republic.

"It is difficult for us to pray now," said Monsignor Emanuel Dally, consultor of the patriarch. "They pray loudly with microphones. Our people are hesitating to come to church."

In Basra on Thursday, the fear turned to grief when two Christian businessmen were shot dead after ignoring repeated warnings from Islamic militants to stop selling liquor in their shops.

Shiite Muslims make up the majority of Iraq's population, but for the last three decades, they were oppressed by Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. With the regime gone and the United States and Britain moving slowly to fill the power vacuum, many Shiite groups have asserted themselves, taking over buildings, renaming streets, setting up security patrols, operating hospitals and issuing orders to nonbelievers to abide by the Muslims' religious ways.

For Christians, this is an odd time; they are suspended between hope that they might gain true religious freedom and fear that they may lose what rights they had. When Hussein was in power, Christians were not permitted to run religious schools or proselytize outside their churches. But they could hold services regularly, church officials said.

In recent weeks, Christians say, militant Shiites have threatened to kill people who produced and sold alcohol, which is considered illegal under Islamic law but was allowed under Hussein. Churchgoing women say they have been taunted for not covering their heads. Shopkeepers report being harassed for selling magazines with advertisements featuring women.

Warduni said he was so alarmed that he wrote a letter more than a week ago to retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who has been heading up the postwar reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

"We want to tell the Americans that we have a 2,000-year history in this country," said the leader of the Chaldean community, which makes up about 80% of Iraq's Christian population. "We want to tell them that we want our religious freedom and our cultural rights

Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Postwar Iraq, which set up shop in Baghdad about two weeks ago, did not respond when asked why it had not answered Warduni's letter.

Though Christians all over Iraq feel threatened, the sense of unease is perhaps strongest in the Shiite-dominated south, where Thursday's shootings took place.

In Basra -- as in much of Iraq -- the sale of alcohol has always been the profitable realm of the Christian community. During the battle for the city, and even after Hussein's forces fled last month and looters descended, the Christian liquor dealers never closed their doors. Amid war and chaos, there was still a market for whiskey and beer.

But in recent days, they placed steel barriers across their windows and some closed shop after Islamic militants with Kalashnikov rifles and grenades threatened to bomb the stores and kill the owners unless they shut down for good.

Sabah Kamel and Abdulahad Slawa were among those who kept their shops open, and both were shot dead within minutes of each other Thursday morning. Witnesses said that in each case, two men wearing long Arabic shirts walked into the stores and one fired a shot at the victim's head. The pair then left by taxi.

"Yesterday morning, he found a little piece of paper in the shop," said Nail Stanley, a friend of Kamel who works as logistics manager for a Western humanitarian aid organization. "It said, 'Close the shop or we're coming to kill you.' But he wasn't afraid."

Kamel's sister said she had urged him to close. "But he's a brave man," said the woman, who said she was too frightened to give her name. "He used to say: 'This is the only place we can earn income. What can we do?' "

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