Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Been talking on & off with a couple of Iraqi Christians who run a small local business (I won't give their names or the type of business they're in -- even after Saddam's fall, they remain on guard), and the stories they tell me about their relatives in Iraq are not happy ones. Being part of the Chaldean Christian minority wasn't a pleasant experience under Saddam; but now that the Shi'a majority, flush with electoral success, appears intent on establishing some kind of political/religious hegemony, many Chaldeans are looking for a way out (and have been since before the election).

They've told me about male cousins who've been blown up or machine gunned to death for selling alcohol. About female relatives and friends who've been beaten and threatened with death for not wearing the veil. They would love to see a true multi-cultural Iraq, but they seriously doubt that a Shi'a government will allow this.

They concede that not all Shi'a are the same. There are of course moderates. But the moderates are not the ones intent on enforcing their version of Islamic law. Chaldeans are also targets for common criminals who believe that Iraqi Christians are rich, and so kidnap relatives for ransom. And then there's the fact that some Chaldeans are working for the US occupation, which puts them in the crosshairs of Sunni guerrillas and Ba'athist militants.

Interestingly enough, many of these Christians are finding safe haven in Syria. Given the current anti-Syrian tumult after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, this may seem to some an odd choice. But Syria, for all its crimes, has for years taken in numerous refugees from other Arab countries. (And for the Syrian state to have committed this assassination, especially at this time, seems suspect to me. Maybe they were behind it, but it doesn't make any political sense, as the present outrage shows. Why give the US a green light to push for direct conflict? Juan Cole offers his thoughts.)

I ask my Iraqi friends if they'll ever move back home. They look at me with edgy smiles, slowly shake their heads "no." They get back to work. A bronze crucifix hangs over their labors. Their faith in God is strong, but not strong enough to resist those of more strident faiths. And so they remain in exile, their country's "liberation" mere images on TV.