After sheltering about 800 people left homeless by last summer’s Israeli bombing raids of Lebanon, Baptists there are now working on plans to help Iraqi refugees who have fled to neighboring Syria.
According to the British newspaper The Baptist Times, Nabil Costa, executive director of the Lebanese Baptist Society, has travelled to Syria and met with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees about the plan. It could see up to 200 Lebanese Baptists providing education, counselling, security and basic food needs for refugees fleeing violence in Iraq.
The ministry could get underway as early as next month, but much work remains to be done in order to get it off the ground. “It is a completely new project,” Costa told the newspaper. “We would need to get many, many people” involved.
The U.N. estimates as many as 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring states, particularly Syria and Jordan, and nearly as many are displaced within Iraq.
The Minority Rights Group, a UK-based non-governmental organization, says a disproportionate number of those leaving Iraq are Christians, members of minority groups caught in the crossfire of sectarian strife since the fall of Saddam Hussein, who had previously afforded them protection. Though 96 percent of Iraqis are Muslim, 44 percent of asylumn-seekers from Iraq recorded by Syria since December 2003 were Christians.
Costa said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com that Lebanese Baptists are committed to help displaced persons regardless of religion or background. Most of the families sheltered by Baptists displaced by bombing in the Bekaa Valley during month-long hostility last July and August between Israeli and Hezbollah troops last year were Shiite Muslims.
A recent report by Minority Rights Group said while all of Iraq’s civilian citizens have been subject to horrific levels of violence since 2003, it has been particularly acute for the 10-percent of Iraqi population from religious and ethnic minorities. Many of the groups have been in Iraq for two millennia or more.
Christians are particularly vulnerable, because their faith associates them with the West and the U.S.-led multi-national force in Iraq.
The largest Christian groups are forms of Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox traditions. Another small group is the Mandeans, one of the oldest surviving Gnostic religions, which regards John the Baptist as its main prophet. Other minorities include a few Jews, as well as Palestinian refugees who fled to Iraq in waves beginning with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
Costa told The Baptist Times that members of Iraq’s small Baptist community have been among those fleeing the country. His organization works with a literature distribution project operated out of Baghdad Baptist Church. Two Baptist churches in Baghdad and five house churches in Nineveh comprised a small convention accepted last year into membership of the Baptist World Alliance.
Costa said the majority of members of Baghdad Baptist Church still in Iraq are there because they cannot afford the $1,000 required to purchase visa on the black market. “They are suffering at the hand of strong anti-Christian sentiment,” he said. “Many people want them out of Iraq.”
Unlike Sunni and Shia refugees who flee their country to avoid violence hoping to one day return, according to a Lebanese newspaper, many Iraqi Christians are leaving their country for good. While Iraqi Christians in the past witnessed waves of persecution and displacement, the one now taking place is the worst.
Habib Afram, chairman of the Syriac Association, told Pierre Atallah, an editor of the Arabic newspaper An-Nahar, the next decade will witness the end of a Christian presence in Iraq, which he views as a catastrophe for Christians in the East.
Afram said Christian refugees suffer most, because they do not receive any social or political support, either from the Vatican or other countries. Unlike some other Iraqi minorities, they are unable to protect themselves by forming a militia.
The Minority Rights Group reported systematic attacks against Christian business owners during the last three years and a pattern of targeted attacks against churches and Christian buildings.
Because their religions do not forbid the drinking of alcohol, Christians were one of only two minority groups allowed licenses to sell liquor under Saddam. Other popular businesses for Christians include beauty parlors and DVD shops. That made them vulnerable in May 2003, when Sheik Mohammed al Fartousi issued a fatwa banning alcohol, commanding women to wear veils and closing the cinema.
While Saddam protected Christians to curry favor, many leaders of Iraq’s fundamentalist factions view their presence as part of a western Crusade to strip Muslims of their faith and Christianize their nation.
In some ways, the report said, things are worse now than under Saddam. “It was lawless and stable before,” said one interviewee quoted in the report. “Now it is lawless and anarchic.”
Others quoted in the report said the Iraqi mindset hinders protection of human rights.
“Human rights are not in the Iraqi consciousness,” said Pascale Warda, an Assyrian Christian and former minister in Iraq’s transitional government. “People don’t know how to demand their rights, and even if they do, they don’t say.”
“We need to change our mentality,” added Hunain al Qaddo, a minority member of Iraq’s constitution committee. “Dictatorship and the idea that rights are granted as favors are embedded in us.”
Just five of the 71 drafters of the constitution were from minority communities. While progressive on one level, the document is criticized as too vague on issues like women’s rights and the role of religion in society.
Minority women are particularly at risk, the report said, because some fundamentalists believe rape of an “unbeliever” is considered an act of purification and is not unlawful.
The Minority Rights Group report called on the international community, particularly the U.S. and U.K., to spend money for resettlement of vulnerable communities in Iraq, a burden that now falls disproportionately on neighboring states.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.