Exodus of Iraqi Christians in full flood as targeted killings grow

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The Independent Online

It was midnight in Baghdad, not a time to be out in this place of violence. But the workers from the Baghdad Hunting Club had almost made it back home through the deserted streets when the tyres of their Kia minibus were shredded by a burst of gunfire.

The shots had come from a black Opel saloon which had tracked them from the club - a prestigious haunt of Iraq's new rich - after finishing the late shift. Four men, their faces covered by keffiyehs, slid open the door of the minibus and sprayed the occupants with Kalashnikov fire.

Their targets, seven Christians, were killed almost instantly. Two others were injured but survived. The dead were all breadwinners for their families in the close-knit Christian community in the suburb of al-Doura. These families now want to leave Iraq, joining the exodus of thousands of their co-religionists since the war.

The murders were the latest deadly attack against Iraq's Christians, a systematic and brutal campaign by Islamic extremists which began soon after the "liberation" by the United States and Britain. So far, 110 have been killed. In August, four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul were blown up in a co-ordinated series of car bombings, killing 12 people and injuring 61 others.

In September, another Baghdad church was bombed. There have also been mortar attacks on community centres, shootings of Christian shopkeepers and kidnappings of businessmen for extortion.

The result had been a flow of Christians - mostly middle-class and members of the intelligentsia and entrepreneurs - out of the country, with a marked acceleration in the past few months. About 45,000 have gone so far out of a community estimated to be between 600,000 and 700,000.

Pascale Warda, the Iraqi interim government's minister for displacement and migration, who is herself a Christian, says there is no chance of halting the exodus while the attacks continue.

Christians in Iraq faced little religious persecution under the secular regime of Saddam Hussein. Senior members of the Baath party, including Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister, were Christians. Now, they say, they receive scant protection from the US and British military in the face of the onslaught. Some of the early killings, mainly of shopkeepers, happened in the supposedly safer, British-run south of the country.

The interim government's national security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, blames the church bombings on followers of the Jordanian-born Sunni militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Iraqi police say fighters from Muqtada Sadr's Mehdi Army could be responsible for those and other sectarian attacks. But whatever the truth, hardly anyone has been arrested.

Those killed in the minibus shooting worked as cooks and waiters at the hunting club. The expensive institution once used by the Baath elite has now reopened. Membership stands at 1,500 with plenty more willing to pay the annual $450 (£250) subscription to use its tennis courts, pools and restaurants.

Among the dead were Emanuel Markus, 42, and his 16-year-old son, Maradona. Another son, Elias, 17, who was shot in the arm, is so terrified and traumatised that he has now fled the family home.

Dressed in a black mourning gown, Kisno Markus sat at home clutching photographs of her husband and two sons. The remaining seven members of the family are all women. They now have to survive in an Iraq where work is scarce for all, and even more so for working-class women.

"I know it is going to be very hard, but I cannot think about that now," said Mrs Markus. "I have looked at the dead faces of my husband and my son, and that is what keeps on going through my mind.

"They were very close - my husband named my son after his favourite footballer. They used to laugh about that. My other son, Elias, has gone to Zakha, the last village in Iraq before you get to Turkey. That is how frightened he is. We are frightened as well. We must leave. We cannot afford to go abroad right now, but we are moving to stay with relations in another part of Baghdad. We are all very scared."

Across the street, 50-year-old Khuki Elias Kreto mourned her son, Nabin, aged 25. "He was my only boy - the only one - and they took him away," she said. "What kind of people are these? My son was so quiet that the neighbours said they did not even know when he was in the house. He has never harmed anyone."

Another victim, Emir Shabo Gorgis, supported his wife, six children, an elderly father and his sister on basic pay of $10 a week. "He had worked very hard all his life," said his widow, 27-year-old Ilhan. "We never got involved in politics. We have good Muslim friends and neighbours. I do not know why there is so much hatred."

The Iraqi police and American forces turned up at the scene of the shooting, but the families say they do not expect anyone to be arrested.

The director of the hunting club, Maksood Al-Sanjary, said: "What has happened is very sad. We would like to help in some way, but these people were the responsibility of a contractor to the club. We are living in very bad times."

Christians are often targeted in Iraq's thriving abduction industry because they are perceived as being well off. Samir Sajouri, 33, was kidnapped from his furniture shop and held for a week until his family paid a ransom of $35,000. Now he is taking his wife and three children to Jordan.

"We did not have the money," he said. "My wife had to sell stock and borrow to pay this. I was treated very badly by the men who had kidnapped me. They beat me and kicked me. There were always insults because I am a Christian. It is strange - 90 per cent of those I employed were Muslims," said Mr Sajouri.

At the Church of the Holy Rosary in Karada, Father Butros Haddad was seeing a parishioner seeking her son's baptism certificate. "It means they are leaving Iraq," he said. "Every day I hear about one or two families leaving from this parish and others. I have been a priest for 35 years and I have never seen the community face such a time of lawlessness.

"It is not bad just for the Christians: our fellow Iraqis - Muslims - are also suffering. But on top of all other troubles, the Christians feel they are being especially targeted. The problem is that the Americans don't seem to be able to do anything about security. There is a sense of terrible fear."

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