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Basra's Christians look to the future with hope - and a little fear

[Iraq] Gates locked outside a Christian church in Basra.
Grilles fermées devant une église chrétienne de Bassora (photo d’archives) (IRIN )

Over the 11 years he has served as the priest of the Basra Syrian Catholic Church, Father Sulaka Zacharia only locked the doors of his church during the worst excesses of Saddam Husayn's regime. But during the two months since the overthrow of the regime, and the subsequent outbreak of looting, those doors have rarely been opened.

British soldiers and the new Iraqi police force patrol the streets of Basra, but few nights pass uninterrupted by the sound of gunfire. "I don't like to lock the doors of the church, but there is still so much insecurity in Basra," said Zacharia. "It is the biggest problem we face."

But it is not just his problem. All the people of Basra yearn for the day when a businessman can close his shop at night without taking everything of value home with him. What makes these uncertain days that bit more worrying for Zacharia and the 5,000-odd Christians in Basra are the first tentative signs of what life in the new Iraq may hold for its Christian minority.

"Some extremist Muslims consider Christians as second-class citizens, and this could make problems for us in the future," said the priest, suggesting that this was a view shared by his congregation of 800.

But Garabet and Haik Akhikian, father and son, say Zacharia is worrying unnecessarily. Garabet's parents fled Armenia in 1914 to escape the genocidal campaign waged against Armenians by their Turkish neighbours, and their children and grandchildren have lived in Iraq ever since.

"We have lived here for 100 years and faced no persecution as Christians," said Haik. "Why should we expect that to change? Every country has its fanatics, and if Iraq is governed in the future by Islamic fanatics, then this will be a problem for everyone - not just Christians."

In a series of interviews with different Islamic leaders in Basra, IRIN was repeatedly told that any future Islamic government would rigorously defend the rights of all minorities.

"We are aiming for the unity of all Iraqi people and a move away from the racism of the past," Said Salah al Batat, the Basrah director of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq said. "We believe in a multi-cultural and multi-political Iraq and to that end we will defend the rights of all minorities."

But the reality remains that since the fall of Saddam and the advent of Islamic radical groups flexing their new-found muscle, acts of violence have been perpetrated against Christians in Basra. For example, two shopkeepers were shot dead last month by unknown militants for selling alcohol.

During Saddam's time, many Christian shopkeepers were licensed to sell alcohol - both the home-made and the imported varieties - and, in a spirit of tolerance, even hung signs from their shop fronts advertising the fact. Now, all alcohol sales in Basra have gone underground or stopped altogether.

Rafi Manaserrian lives in a quiet neat street in the north of the city favoured by many of Basra's Armenian families. Judging by the comfort of his home and the number of electrical appliances in it, Manaserrian's family has enjoyed economic prosperity in the past. That prosperity, as it turns out, came from the sale of alcohol in the family-run shop at the end of the road.

But the shop - like all of Basra's Christian-run alcohol shops - has been closed since word, and then fear, began to spread following the death of the two shopkeepers. "We decided that it wasn't safe to keep the shop open," said Manaserrian, "so we took down the sign and boarded up the shop."

Manaserrian remains confident that once security and government return to Iraq such problems will cease and life will return to normal. "The people committing these crimes are just a minority - we Christians have nothing to fear."

But Manaserrian's friend and fellow Armenian, Anna Manook, has her doubts. Her daughter, Sonia, came home recently with stories that female Christian students had been turned away from the university's science campus for refusing to wear headscarves as instructed by a group of young men manning the gate.

Then came stories from another friend that female Muslim students at the medical school had been sprayed with oil, also for not wearing the hijab.

"When I hear these stories I feel nervous," said Manook, who also stressed that her Muslim friends felt equally threatened by the extremists.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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