An Iraqi Christian taking refuge in Syria is adamant about not returning to his homeland, which - like for many other believers fleeing the sectarian violence-rife country - has brought him so much pain and suffering.
“I’d rather go to hell than go back to Iraq,” Basil Mati Koriya Kaktoma, 60, declared, according to U.K.-based think tank Ekklesia. “What I saw was so horrible that I can’t even look at a map of my own country.”
Kaktoma, a retired oil company employee, was abducted by Muslim gunmen in May 2006. During the eight days of his captivity, he was physically abused, including the breaking of his right leg which has become permanently discolored.
He was released because relatives in the United States and Canada paid the ransom.
“Iraq is finished,” stated his wife, Safar, on behalf of her entire family, who has been living in a cramped apartment in Damascus since July 2006.
More than 500,000 Christians, or about 50 percent, have fled Iraq since the U.S.-led offensive in 2003. Even though Christians make up only three percent of the country’s population, they account for nearly half of all the refugees leaving Iraq, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Several prominent human rights groups have called for increased protection for religious minority groups in Iraq, warning that the indigenous Christian population in Iraq will soon be extinct if nothing is done.
Since 2003, more than 200 Christians have been killed, dozens of churches bombed, and countless believers kidnapped for ransom money.
Islamic militants falsely associate Iraqi Christians with the United States and the Coalition force, which they link because of a perceived shared religion. They attack Christians because of their hatred towards the United States, and also because they believe Christians have relatives in western countries that can quickly supply large sums of money for ransom.
Recently in the northern city of Mosul, six Christians were killed in less than a week, including three Christian men murdered within 24 hours.
The series of murders struck fear in Iraqi Christians in the area and led to a massive exodus from the city. More than 15,000 Christians were driven out of Mosul over the span of two weeks in October.
The World Council of Churches, the world’s largest ecumenical body, has urged Christians to try to remain in Iraq, although the Council acknowledges the persecution faced by Christians in the country.
“Your presence in the land is an assurance that Christianity continues to endure; you are a sign of hope to people of faith everywhere,” an Oct. 14 letter by WCC General Secretary Samuel Kobia read.
Iraq is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
A recent report by Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights puts the number of deaths in Iraq’s Christian community at only 172 between 2003 and the end of 2007. The figure is likely much higher, rights groups and media reports note.