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Fleeing Iraqi Christians on road to Damascus

Facing more danger and persecution since the Iraq war began, many Christians choose self-exile in Syria.

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published May 23, 2005


[Times photo: Susan Taylor Martin]
Iraqi Christians Jalila and son Rami hold a photo of Jalila's husband, Najeeb, victim of a gunman. She considers Syria a way station to the West.

DAMASCUS, Syria - When President Bush, a born-again Christian, launched the 2003 war against Iraq, he probably didn't expect one result - that Iraq, once a secular nation, would become especially dangerous for Christians.

Islamic extremists have bombed churches. They have burned liquor stores and killed their Christian owners. They harass Christian women who don't shroud themselves in black.

The president probably didn't expect another result - that Iraqi Christians would find refuge in Syria, a country that he often criticizes but that has a strong record of religious tolerance. In the past two years, Syria has taken in as many as 20,000 Christians fleeing violence and persecution in their native land.

Among them: Sabah Guryal.

"Christians in Iraq paid twice after coalition forces entered," says Guryal, until recently an executive of the Middle East Council of Churches in the northern city of Mosul.

"First, the Iraqi Muslims accused the Christians of supporting the coalition because we are Christians like the American soldiers. This is why they insult us, because we are "unbelievers.' And we pay the second time because the American forces consider us all Arabs, not Christians."

Anonymous callers warned Guryal to stop working for the council or he would be killed. His 22-year-old son, an interpreter for coalition troops, twice escaped kidnapping by men with guns.

"There are hundreds of stories like this," Guryal says. "Hundreds of families have been threatened."

By last summer, he had enough. With nothing but their clothes, he, his wife and their four children took a taxi to Damascus, where they share two rooms in a modest area of the city that has become home to many other Iraqi Christians. Left behind: A car. A spacious house. A lifetime of achievement.

"We leave everything," Guryal says, "just to be alive."

Christians from Iraq have gone to other countries, but most choose Syria because of cultural similarities and ease of entry.

Unique in the region, Syria allows any citizen of an Arab nation to enter for up to six months without a visa. President Bush says this "porous" border makes it easy for insurgents to cross into Iraq from Syria, but it also makes it possible for Christians to flee the dangers that have swept their country since the United States occupied it.

"From the time of independence in 1946, Syria has always opened its doors for every refugee who comes - Armenians, Palestinians, Sudanese and now Iraqis," says Archbishop Isidore Battikha, patriarch of the Greek Catholic Church in Damascus.

"They are all welcome in Syria, and the government asks us to help them - we open our churches, our meeting rooms, our schools, and help by money or finding money."

Christians also feel more comfortable in Syria than in Iraq's other neighbors, the overwhelmingly Muslim countries of Jordan, Iran, Turkey, Kuwait and especially Saudi Arabia. There, "religious freedom does not exist," the U.S. State Department says.

By contrast, about 10 percent of Syria's 18-million people are Christians, who worship freely in an atmosphere rich in history and tolerance.

It was on the road to Damascus that St. Paul converted after his vision of Christ. It was in Syria that disciples were first called Christians. And it was here on a recent Sunday morning, not far from the magnificent Omayyad Mosque, that hundreds prayed for their new pope, Benedict XVI, under the soaring stone arches of a Greek Catholic church.

"Christians and Muslims have lived in this country for 1,500 years," says Father Toufic Eid. "Relations are very good in that people are used to living together."

As tourism grows, Syria proudly notes its wealth of Christian shrines, including St. Serge Church, site of the world's oldest altar in continuous use (more than 1,000 years); and St. Teckla's Monastery, named for one of the earliest saints. Both are in predominantly Christian villages in the mountains north of Damascus, where 18,000 people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

"We did not realize there were so many Christian places here," says Jamila, an engineer from Mosul who was visiting St. Teckla's grave, in a rocky grotto high on a mountainside.

She and her sister, an engineer, have remained in Iraq only because of their jobs. Last year, their brother Abdel, manager of a TV station, moved his family to Damascus after several churches were bombed in Mosul and Baghdad.

"Iraq is dangerous for Christians," says Abdel, who did not want his last name used because he fears for his relatives there. "Here, there is security and freedom."

Syria's constitution requires a Muslim to be president, but the ruling Baath Party was founded by a Christian who believed in secular government. Christians also benefit from the fact that Syria's most recent leaders, members of the minority Alawite sect, have embraced other minorities as a way of strengthening their power.

A similar situation existed in Iraq, where the Baath Party ruled until 2003. As a Baathist and a member of the Sunni minority, Saddam Hussein had a secular government that included Christians - among his best-known advisers was the Christian deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.

Like all Iraqis, the million or so Christians suffered under Hussein's tyrannical rule. They were forced to give their children Arab names. Spies attended church to see if priests were sermonizing against the regime. But Christians were generally tolerated and allowed to worship freely.

That changed after the invasion as the insurgency flared and Islamic fundamentalism grew stronger. Once unthinkable events became routine. A bishop in Mosul was held two days before his church paid a $40,000 ransom. A Christian woman had to disguise herself in black cloak and veil so she could safely flee the country after kidnappers killed her husband.

Iraq now has a democratic government, but Christians often feel like outcasts. The Kurds - America's closest Iraqi allies - are denying jobs to Christians unless they join a Kurdish party, according to Father Arkan Yako.

An Assyrian Christian, Yako recently gave an interview on CNN in which he complained that even under current Iraqi law, the sons of Christian women married to Muslim men automatically become Muslims themselves. His comments led to death threats that prompted Yako to temporarily leave Iraq; he is now in Damascus.

"We are third- or fourth-class citizens in our own country," he says.

Life in Syria is by no means idyllic for Iraq's self-exiled Christians. This is a poor nation with high unemployment. As "visitors," the Iraqis are not legally allowed to work here, though some find jobs in the underground economy as laborers and shop clerks.

Jalila, a small woman in black whose face looks forever drained of happiness, is one of many Iraqi Christians who regard Syria as a way station, hoping they can one day move to a country in the West.

Shortly after U.S. forces entered Baghdad in April 2003, Jalila's husband, a salesman, was killed by an unknown gunman. Two weeks ago, her brother was struck in the heart when he got caught in a crossfire between insurgents and soldiers.

Jalila blames both deaths on terrorists, not the Americans. She has adult children in many places - California, Turkey and Holland - and has applied for visas for her and her 19-year-old son to move to Australia.

Never again will she live in Iraq: "I'd like to go to any country, just as long as it's outside our country."

Iraq is not the only area of the Middle East where the Christian population is dwindling. Thousands left Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, during years of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Tens of thousands more fled Lebanon during its 15-year civil war.

Battikha, the Greek Catholic archbishop, says Christians are increasingly divided about their future in this troubled part of the world.

Some feel that "God put us here; this is our land, and we have to continue our mission. Others feel they have only one time to live, so why lose their lives living with problems. They prefer to go where there is more dignity, more peace, more freedom, more opportunities."

Battikha understands the latter view but is saddened by the number of Iraqi Christians in Syria who want to move on. After 15 years in Rome, he realized that he felt happiest here, in the land of his birth.

Rome "didn't offer the kind of warm relationships between persons, so I don't accept it when somebody asks me for help to get a visa to go outside. I know we have economic and social problems, but we have a lifetime of experience between Islam and Christianity. I think the whole world needs this kind of experience."

--Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at susan@sptimes.com

[Last modified May 23, 2005, 01:24:11]


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