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Waiting for the Future

Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics – a community in flight

by Sahar Aloul

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Thousands of Iraqi refugees have already fled their homeland for the relative safety of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – ahead of what seems to be the inevitable start of war. Most are in the country illegally as they wait patiently, if not endlessly, for approval of immigration papers to Western countries that they hope will grant them permanent safe haven.

The Jordanian capital, Amman, has become a transit point for these refugees who, for 12 years, have steadily fled Iraq. However, in contrast to the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when 1.2 million refugees flooded into Jordan, authorities there say its border with Iraq will be closed as soon as hostilities start.

The current conflict with Iraq has the most modern of causes – the West wants to ensure that the country has no weapons of mass destruction. Yet, its internal conflicts date to antiquity.

Iraq as we know it today is a nation that was carved out of the Ottoman Empire. After World War I, European victors drew new national boarders with little regard to the interests of distinct ethnic and religious groups that made up Mesopotamia – an ancient region located in the valleys between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

And while Chaldean Catholics there have a long history of remaining politically neutral, the community has seen about 400 of its villages destroyed under Iraq’s President, Saddam Hussein.

Persecution or freedom? More than 95 percent of Iraqis follow Islam; 4 percent are Christian and a small number belong to other religious groups. Estimates place the number of Christians now residing in Iraq at no more than 300,000, in a nation of 24 million. Thirty years ago their numbers stood at 1.8 million, 80 percent of whom were Chaldean Catholics.

According to Father Raymond Mousalli, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchal Vicar in Jordan, Chaldean refugees there have recently topped the 10,000 mark. This number fluctuates greatly as they enter and leave the kingdom.

A smaller number of Chaldean refugees, estimated at 4,000, have also fled from Iraq to Lebanon in the past five years. But with Lebanon’s high cost of living and the tight grip the government keeps on illegal immigrants, Beirut’s Chaldean Bishop, Michel Kassarji, advises them to return.

“Although they don’t want to hear it, I tell them to head back home as they are living here in destitution and continuous fear of being caught by the police for their illegal status,” Bishop Kassarji said.

But according to a current report by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, “The return of the Chaldeans to Iraq [if they have left illegally] would no doubt be a death sentence or worse, if possible.”

It is this incessant wave of migration, which has increased in the past decade, that threatens to empty Iraq of one of its most ancient peoples.

Society divided. The family is the nucleus of Iraqi society. It is being split as members of the same family emigrate to any country that will take them.

One woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, moved to Amman four years ago to follow up on her “green card” application. Three of her sons, all in their early 20’s, illegally live and work in Greece as carpenters and gas station attendants.

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