AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 14/2008

Exodus from Hatred: Iraqi Christians Seek Refuge in Germany

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Christians are being severely persecuted in Iraq. German churches are now urging the government to be generous in granting them asylum -- and have encountered broad support.

The peaceful, idyllic scenery outside their window is completely foreign to them. The house in the western German city of Essen, where they had arrived the previous Wednesday, faces a landscape of small gardens in full bloom. Fascinated, the seven children in the Jalal family are constantly looking out the window. They have come from Mosul in Iraq to Germany's Ruhr region, where their grandparents, who have already been living here for four years, have taken them in.

Armed Sunnis forced their way into the Jalal family's house last August. Screaming "damned Christians," they beat the children, the eldest of them only 14. The attackers spat at pictures of the Virgin Mary on the wall and then shot the mother to death in front of her children. Her husband had been kidnapped a few days earlier on the way to work and disappeared without a trace.

The escape from Iraq took the children to Germany by way of Damascus. Staff members at the German embassy in the Syrian capital were so touched by their story that they did everything within their power, even involving senior members of the German Foreign Ministry, to help the children.

Reports compiled by the department -- headed by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) -- paint a grim picture of the situation for Christians in Iraq. Only 400,000 of the 800,000 Christians who were living in Iraq in 2005 remain there today. "Threats, murder and abduction are part of daily life for Christians in Iraq," says the German government's human rights commissioner, Günter Nooke, a member of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). According to Bishop Wolfgang Huber, the head of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Christians in Iraq face violence that is the equivalent of "ethnic cleanings and genocide in other places."

Huber has quietly joined forces with representatives of the Catholic Church to campaign for the establishment of a German humanitarian assistance program, and his efforts have apparently met with success. This week Erika Steinbach, human rights spokeswoman for the CDU and the Christian Social Union (CSU) joint parliamentary group, plans to argue for a contingent solution that would involve the rapid acceptance of a large number of refugees in Germany.

The Interior Ministry has already taken an important humanitarian step. In a decree dated May 15, 2007, Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) ordered that asylum already granted to Iraqis should not be revoked "for the time being." It could be assumed that Christians from central and southern Iraq, Schäuble wrote, were being "generally persecuted as a group by non-government parties in Iraq." This provides the roughly 2,500 refugees already in Germany with the certainty that they will not be sent back to Iraq, at least for now.

In a few days, however, there will be far more at stake within the Human Rights Commission in the German parliament, the Bundestag. The churches want lawmakers to guarantee the long-term right of asylum and settlement for a much larger number of refugees -- between 20,000 and 30,000 Christians who are part of the educated upper and middle classes in Iraq. There is enough capacity in Germany, argues Bishop Huber, "to provide, in collaboration with European partners, a relevant number of Iraqi refugees with the opportunity to settle here." According to a spokesman of Interior Minister Schäuble, the government "is thinking about a contingent solution." Human rights commissioner Nooke also favors Germany accepting the Iraqi refugees.

The End of an Ancient Christian Culture

For years, human rights groups like Amnesty International and the Society for Threatened Peoples have sought to draw attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians, who have apparently been caught between two fronts. Sunnis and Shiites alike hate Christians and because many of them speak English and often work for the military as interpreters, they are seen as supporters of the coalition forces and thus as "traitors" to the Iraqi people.

Priests are being murdered, churches blown up and bombs detonated in Christian schools. Last spring, Sunni militias demanded that Christian families in places like Basra and Mosul pay a "special tax for infidels." Those who were unable to pay were told to send a family member to the mosque on Fridays to publicly convert to Islam. Families that refused to comply with either edict were ordered, in the name of Allah, to leave their houses within 24 hours. This has made refugees out of thousands of Christians, but the capacity of neighboring countries like Syria to accept them has reached its limits.

Christian clerics in Iraq -- and at the Vatican -- were long hesitant to address the idea of flight and exodus more clearly, anxious not to further accelerate the process of emigration. Iraqi Christians, after all, are leaving their homes in an ancient Christian region with a unique history. Those who are now being driven out are the descendants of the original Christian communities between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, one of the cradles of world Christianity. Most Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Church, which dates back to St. Thomas the Apostle in the first century A.D.

The exodus signifies the preliminary end of a culture that is thousands of years old. This explains why the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, wanted to stand his ground and be "the last to jump ship."

Unknown assailants abducted Rahho in February. His body was found three weeks ago in a garbage dump near Mosul.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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