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Expert Urges More Help for Christian Minority in Iraq

DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Middle East expert Kamal Sido about the fate of the Christian minority in Iraq after EU ministers this week dropped calls to take in more Iraqi refugees.

Iraqi Christians pray during a Sunday mass in Baghdad

Christians in Iraq are often caught in the crossfire of ethnic violence

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates 2 million Iraqi refugees are living abroad, mostly in neighboring Jordan and Syria. More than 2.5 million are internally displaced. The UNHCR has long lobbied the EU to take in more Iraqi refugees.

In April this year, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble urged European countries to do more to provide shelter to Christian Iraqis who have fled the country to avoid ethnic strife after the 2003 war. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, on a visit to Berlin earlier this week, urged Germany to abandon this initiative. He said security in the country had improved and refugees were needed to rebuild the nation.

DW-WORLD.DE spoke with Kamal Sido of the Society for Threatened Peoples in Goettingen about the troubles faced by the Christian minority in Iraq and their future in the country.

DW-WORLD.DE: What's the current situation of Christians in Iraq?

Kamal Sido of the Society for Threatened Peoples

Kamal Sido says Christians in Iraq are being increasingly attacked and persecuted

Kamal Sido: Christians in Iraq, the Chaldeans, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Assyrians, are doing really badly especially since the US-led invasion of 2003. The three big religious groups, the Shiites, Sunnis and the Kurds in the north have virtually declared their independence and have their own militias. The Christians, on the other hand, don't live in a compact area, they don't have their own militias, they've been caught in the crossfire and can't defend themselves. The same goes for other minorities such as the Kurdish Yazidis, the Shabbak or the Mandians.

How have the everyday lives of Christians in Iraq been affected?

They're directly threatened by violence, death, rape and persecution, their churches are blown up, young people are abducted even by simple criminals who demand a ransom for it. There's a prejudice in Iraq that the Christians are wealthy and that you can squeeze out ransom money from them. But mostly, the people are killed in the most gruesome ways.

Why are the Christians persecuted?

Every ethnic group or religious community in Iraq is making efforts to keep "clean" the area in which they live. The Sunnis want to keep to themselves, the Shiites too, and that's why there are persecutions. In addition, Islam in Iraq has been radicalized since 2003. In the meantime, international terrorists such as al-Qaeda are now cooperating with local groups. All that has led to an anti-Christian atmosphere. The Christians are accused of collaborating with the Americans. But that's not true. If there's anyone working together with the Americans, it's the Kurds in northern Iraq, not the Christians in Baghdad or Mosul.

What's changed since the American invasion?

At the beginning of the Iraq war, a million Christians lived in Iraq; today there are just 350,000 in the country, which means more than half have left. They've gone to Jordan, Syria and the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq. And those who have money go to Europe.

Does that mean Christians actually fared better under Saddam Hussein?

I wouldn't say that but many led a more inconspicuous life. But when Christians were politically active, they were oppressed just like other minorities. The Chaldeans and the Assyrians suffered as much as the Kurds at the time. Their villages too were the target of gas attacks by Saddam Hussein.

How do you see the future of Christians in Iraq? Do you think they will be any there in the future?

Iraqi refugees at a camp in Jordan

Some 4.4 million Iraqis have fled their homes since the start of the war

The Society for Threatened Peoples has repeatedly drawn attention to the topic. We've put together a three-phase plan: firstly all refugees who come to Germany should be taken in and without a lot of red tape. And those refugees who are already here should not be deported back to Iraq. Secondly, we want help for the Christian refugees in Syria and Jordan if we don't want to see an almost 2000-year history go up in smoke. And thirdly, we need to offer help on the ground -- especially in the Kurdish regions on Iraq and in the so-called Niniveh region, northeast of Mosul, where the Christians largely live.

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