Iraqi Christians Urged to Return from Exile

After the coordinated bombing attacks on five Iraqi churches at the beginning of this month, tens of thousands of Christians fled the war-torn nation to neighboring nations and overseas, with estimates approaching 40,000 by mid-August. But now, some are returning to Kurdish-controlled areas in the north, said Iraq’s designated ambassador to the Vatican.

“They are business people, physicians, lawyers and teachers willing to invest in Iraq and participate in the reconstruction of its society,” said Ambassador-designate Albert Yelda.

Many Christians feel politics were the motivation for the Aug. 2 bombings that hit five Christian churches across Baghdad and the northern city of Monsul, and resulted in the deaths of at least 11 worshippers and the wounding of over 50. After the attack, Jerry Dykstra, the media relations director for Open Doors commented, “That’s really the goal of terrorists—to drive out the Christian community which numbers about 500-thousand from Iraq, so that when they’re making a new government in about six months, that they will not have any Christians to share the government with or give religious freedom.”

The Iraqi Christian community, concentrated around Baghdad and in the northern cities of Kirkuk, Mosul and Irbil, is one of the oldest in the world, with a history of Christian faith that dates back to the time of the apostles.

“We are the descendants of the original residents of present-day Iraq,” said Yelda.

Yedla, who will take up his post in Rome as soon as the Vatican accredits him, acknowledged the fear that drove the Christians from their ancestral homes.

“And that’s tragic,” he said. He noted that these refugees left the soil where their ancestors had created one of mankind’s oldest and most spectacular civilizations—Mesopotamia.

Although Yelda empathized with Christians fleeing Iraq after the latest wave of attacks—including several reported incidents of rape of young women working for the American military and foreign corporations, he stated, “Christians must not give up their property here. If they want to flee the violence, which is not the work of local Muslims, they should go north to Kurdish territory, and come back when security in Baghdad has improved.”

According to the most recent reports, this may be happening. United Press International reported that Assyrians are returning in considerable numbers to Kurdistan, from where they escaped after the destruction of their villages on Saddam Hussein’s orders. Some Christians are returning from exile in Western Europe, Australia and the United States, especially the Chicago area, home to the largest group of Assyrian Christian expatriates.

“Not a day goes by without a family contacting me wishing to come back, especially since the terrorist attack in Baghdad in early August,” Patros Harboli, the Roman Catholic bishop of Dohuk, told Le Figaro.

In Baghdad, prominent Muslim clerics and political leaders have told Mr. Yelda they do not want to see Christians sell their property and move across the border to Jordan, Syria and then on to the West.

"They go out of their way to show us their respect, inviting our patriarchs to all major events," he said, "and they roundly condemned the attacks on our people, the bombings of our shops, the rapes and the killings."

In fact, immediately following the attack, Iraqi Sunni and Shiite religious leaders joined Christian and political leaders, denouncing the bombing of five churches in Iraq as criminal acts aimed at undermining Iraqi unity.

"We condemn these attacks regardless of the party standing behind them," said Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, spokesman for the Muslim Ulemas, the highest Sunni religious authority.

Al-Faidi denied allegations that the church bombings might be linked to attempts by American and European missionaries to preach Christianity in Iraq.

"The aim of the church bombings is strictly political, not religious, and like similar bombings that targeted mosques, they are meant to instigate sectarian and confessional strife among the one Iraqi people," he said.

In Najaf, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shiite religious authority, also denounced the bombings.

Many Iraqi citizens, however, are reluctant to oppose extremists who they fear could become Iraq’s new dictators, a Southern Baptist missionary told BP News.

"Much of what needs to happen in Iraqi economic and social development is waiting for a more secure environment," the worker continued. "The day when Iraqis rise up against those who do these acts will be moved forward if the government and their allies succeed in these efforts. In turn, that day will result in movement on other vital fronts."

And with the elections slated for January of next year, a stronger Christian presence could play a vital role in the shaping of the New Iraq. With this in mind, Christian leaders around the world have been asked to continue praying for Christians in Iraq.