Friday, 2 March 2007

''Big problems'' for Iraqi Christians, Pontifical agency warns

Christians are facing "big problems" in Iraq, the director of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine's Iraq director says, while some Catholic refugees who have fled the war-torn country say they were safer under Saddam.

The Catholic News Service reports that seen as allies of the West, Christians and their institutions have become targets of extremist Islamic groups in Iraq, say Iraqi Christians.

"Christians are facing a big problem in Iraq. Maybe all Iraqis are facing big problems, but I am talking about the Christians now," said Ra'ed Bahou, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine's regional director for Jordan and Iraq.

Saddam Hussein's regime - no matter how cruel and despotic - kept the lid on any sectarian violence, said one Iraqi Catholic refugee in Jordan, who asked that his name not be used. He said Saddam, a secular leader, was especially good for Christians, as long as they stayed out of the way.

"Saddam (controlled) everything. Nobody could say anything bad especially (about) us Christians," he said. "Christians in the Middle East are very good people. We are peace-loving people."

Another refugee said that after years of living in fear and daily bombings many Iraqi Christians felt they were actually safer with Saddam.

"We are getting tired. When Saddam was in power there was no fighting. Saddam loved the Christians. We were safer with Saddam; now we just leave the country," he said.

Christians make up about 5 percent of the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan, said Bahou, whose agency is under the auspices of the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Most of the Christians in Iraq were part of the middle class and had a relatively good standard of living before the war, Bahou said.

At least six Iraqi priests have been kidnapped and five Christian churches bombed in the past few years. At first the Islamic extremists targeted mainly Christians, but now they have turned against each other, said one relief official who works with the Iraqi refugees.

"In the end there will be no Iraq," she said.