When I was a child my parents gave me a small red radio as a gift from Santa, and I was confused. I did not know who Santa was and had no idea why the occasion merited a gift. Apparently, my parents were worried that I may be jealous of our Christian neighbors when we visited them on Christmas and joined them in celebration. These were happy memories from the Iraq I grew up in.
I remember immensely enjoying the decorated Christmas tree, the chocolate we were offered, and the celebratory mood of our Christian neighbors. Santa's surprise gifts eventually stopped when my parents realized I was not jealous, but what continued was the mutual merriment between Christians and Muslims in Iraq. As a Muslim family, we always celebrated with our Christian friends during their holiday and, in turn, they joined us in our celebration of Muslim holidays. No one thought twice about the difference in religion. We were all Iraqis and Iraq stood for diversity of religion and varied ethnicity amongst its people. But that is not the case in today's Iraq.
Iraqi Christians have been killed and kidnapped ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Initially, they were caught between Sunni and Shia tensions and fighting -- and eventually they were targeted directly by most religious extremist groups, starting with al Qaeda in Iraq. The brutal attacks began on Christian individuals and then culminated into mass bombings on churches during sermons. Then it expanded into more subversive methods, from discrimination within the workplace to harassment in the streets. Throughout that time, priests were advocating for Christians to stay in their homes and not flee their county.
"This is our country. We are the original people of this country and the oldest Christian community in the world. We should not leave Iraq. This is our home," a priest advocated in a sermon in the very church in Baghdad that was bombed a few years ago. Christians are not alone in understanding the importance of staying in their homeland despite threats. Moderate Muslims who know that the Christian community is part of the social fabric of Iraq are very much part of the same attitude to keep the country united in its diversity. But as fear spread with the arrival of ISIS, things have changed for all.
At the moment, everyone I know in Iraq is afraid. If you are a Muslim, whether Sunni or Shia, you at least know there are militias or armies on either side to defend you. Many moderate Sunnis and Shi'a are supporting the militias of their own sect -- not out of beliefs or values but out of pure fear, knowing that the other side wants to kill them. And so they support the militias who will do the fighting. At the moment, it is merely the urge to survive that is driving people's decisions and not ideology. But no good can come when fear is the motivating actions. Still, Muslims that are experiencing terror within their own communities and from ISIS, who are clearly after all Shi'a and any Sunni who do not agree with their way of Islam, are in a better position than the Christians who live across the country: from Basra to Baghdad to Mosul and all the way to the furthest part of Kurdistan. If you are a Christian, there is no one to turn to -- and in today's Iraq, not even the government.
My recent communication with my Iraqi Christian friends over the past few months evolved from "we are worried," to "we are scared," to "we are threatened," to "we need help" to the following letter from a very dear young Iraqi man whom I had the privilege to work with in the past. And I know of no one who is as dedicated to Iraq and women's rights as much as my friend George. In his letter he says:
Hello dear Zainab,
Very glad to hear back from you,
The Christian community is shrinking day after day in Baghdad and Iraq in general, even those who live in Kurdistan. My sister and cousin are the last family members I have in Iraq and they are both gone. My sister who had a good job and her husband who works in a UN agency decided to leave to the States. And my cousin who lived in Baghdad with his wife and three children left three months ago to Jordan to apply for asylum.
I have no one in Iraq. Many people I knew in church, or friends, are gone to Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan. There are about 1200 Christian families now in Lebanon after the latest events all came from different parts of Iraq.
Me personally, I was attacked by 2 armed very young boys. One of them put his gun directly to my head, asking me to give him my phone and wallet. He did not say many words but I will never forget what he said: "you look Christian. That's why we will not kill you. We will just take your cell phone and wallet." That happened just in front of my home.
When I entered my home I was speechless really. I was happy that I was safe and alive, in the same time mixed feelings of anger and sadness. I want back my iPhone, because it belongs to me and it is not fair that because I am Christian they can steal my stuff. When I went to [the] police station to report, since they use cell phones in explosions so some friends asked me to go the same day to report, the police were relaxed and smiling in my face and even did not listen to me. Next morning I went to criminal court to report and I finally succeeded in reporting. But no one commented anything to me and I have to admit that bothered me really. A lot.
Rich Christians in Baghdad are called by phone by gangs asking them to pay $60,000 and above or they will kidnap their children, saying that ["]you are Christians we don't want to hurt you just give us money.["] This is a fact.
Many fled Baghdad to go to the North. But those families are living in churches and they live with no privacy. Because of the crowded churches with so many boys and girls, the churches with parents are arranging for the teenagers to get married to each other so they create social order and take away any sexual tension. This is not announced but it is happening. In general, Christians don't feel they are welcomed or have space anymore in Iraq, for me personally I don't feel there is a system or law protecting me or my family from violence in anytime someone needs money or revenge or any other reason. My family and other families, which do not have many resources to leave, are waiting for miracles to happen to leave. If I had enough money or savings I would take my older parents, family, sister and brother to a safer place where we can apply for immigration to any spot of earth that respects dignity of human beings.... I think I have [a] depression problem myself and for sure will need trauma healing but my priority now is safety of my family really, because I see impressions of my sister or brother's face when [the] door knocks after 8 pm. All times of the day the doors are locked. My only relief is my work, even though I am less productive now and kill my tension and depression with smoking. Yes I started smoking as it's my way to relax now. Best, George
It is hard -- very hard -- to ask people to sacrifice the well-being of themselves and their families when their lives are in danger. Unless the Iraqi government prioritizes the protection of the minority population in Iraq and makes everyone feel safe and welcome in the country, this government will be responsible for changing the social DNA of the country if the Christian community, as the biggest minority community, ends up leaving Iraq. I write this as a Muslim who believes a country is only as beautiful as its acceptance and protection its diverse social fabric. Since the second Gulf War, Iraq has witnessed the shrinking of its Christian population from 8 percent to 5 percent, or about 1.5 million people, across the country to the current estimated figure of 200,000-450,000. A country is only as good as its treatment of its most marginalized populations and minorities.
If the Iraqi government does not prioritize the protection of its Christian population, as well as other minorities, through political sensitization, protection, and respect, we will lose the Iraq that it once was. And ISIS will have won even if their military is ultimately defeated.