Christians in Iraq are often the targets of terrorism but when they flee the violence, they struggle to be accepted as citizens in other countries.
The auxiliary bishop of Iraq, Bishop Mar Ishlemon Warduni, was in Wellington for the first time last month to minister to some 30 families of the Chaldean, eastern rite.
As well as being worried about the safety of Christians in Iraq, he was concerned about the difficulty Iraqi refugees have in gaining refugee status in New Zealand.
The ‘war on terror’ has clearly damaged Iraqi chances of securing citizenship in other countries with many immigration officials’ suspicion that Iraqi refugees are terrorists. As well, Iraqi Christians are now not considered for refugee status because many governments believe Iraq is ‘free and democratic’ since the US invasion of 2003. Yet there are more than 45,000 Iraqi Christians displaced by this latest war and its aftermath.
‘Sure we don’t want New Zealand or Australia to have terrorism. We don’t like that. Also we know that they must try to do their best to discover who the terrorists are. But … as Christians in general we can say 95 percent are not terrorists. But … there are terrorists in all countries.’
Bishop Warduni says Iraqis are refused visas in most European countries and they have great difficulty securing visas in New Zealand and Australia. Some families are spread over five or six countries while many are in two or three places. In many cases, husband and wife are forced to live in separate nations.
‘This is injustice against Iraqi Christians,’ he says. ‘Where are the human rights. Here in New Zealand and Australia, they talk about human rights. To have a family divided in two or three countries is not human rights.’
Relatives of New Zealand citizens, whose family members have been attacked or killed in Iraq, should be considered for refugee status and included in this country’s annual intake of 750 refugees.
Islamic fundamentalists blame Iraq’s indigenous Christians for the invasion and occupation by ‘crusader’ forces from Christian countries.
There are car bombings, kidnappings including two priests for ransoms of $US200,000 and $US800,000, suicide bombings; people are afraid to go to the market to buy food because of intermittent explosions there, or to work or school for fear they will not be able to return.
The occupation has distorted the economy so that inflation has reduced the value of the local currency from 3 dinar to $US1 under Saddam Hussein, to 1,500 dinar to $US1 and unemployment is rampant.
‘Prices are rising and many people have no income. Many times they open their shops for two or three hours and then close because of fear. Some liquor retailers have been killed or had their shops destroyed.’
Bishop Warduni says hair salons have also been the targets of religious fanaticism as well as shops selling ice to relieve the 50 degree celsius heat.
There are around 700,000 Catholics in Iraq in a US-estimated total population of 26,700,000, but numbers are difficult to estimate because people are constantly leaving. The majority of Catholics follow the eastern rite which comes from St Thomas, the first-century apostle.
‘When they kidnap one Christian it seems too much.’
Some 400 or 500 families are without work.
Bishop Warduni says that despite talk of bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq, Iraqis are not free to say what they want to say.’
‘What is democracy – to kill one another, to have cars bombed, to have kamikaze, to have kidnappings.’
Democracy cannot be imposed, he said. It must come from education.
Iraqis were gaining nothing from living in a land rich in oil holdings. The average Iraqi had to queue for up to 12 hours to buy petrol.
‘Was it our fault to be born in Iraq where there is petrol.
‘Iraq has very beautiful places but what for? What we need is peace.
‘We can’t pray well, we can’t eat well, we can’t study well, we can’t work well. We cannot do anything.’