Reuters offers a harrowing account of life for Christians in today’s Iraq. In accordance with dhimmi restrictions on selling alcohol, liquor salesmen are being targeted by radical Muslims. Meanwhile, Iraqi police turn a blind eye to Muslims committing genuine offenses.
“Bashir Toma Elias was killed by a single shot to the head in the middle of Basra’s bazaar on Christmas Eve as he prepared to head home to celebrate with his wife and five children. The killing of the Iraqi Christian alcohol merchant sowed fresh fear in a community afraid of increasing religious intolerance in mainly Shi’ite Muslim southern Iraq.
“His widow Jihan cried hysterically outside the Chaldean Church in the affluent Manawi Pasha neighbourhood after Christmas Mass, held in the morning because the lack of security prevented holding a midnight service. ‘We buried Bashir and our priests are celebrating while we are being slaughtered,’ said 40-year-old Jihan. ‘Where is the peace they preach?’
“Bashir, 48, was the latest liquor store trader fatally shot in the country’s second largest city since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in April. Residents say the killer escaped as passers-by looked on, in a city still plagued by crime and mob rule despite the British military presence. Since the war that toppled Saddam, armed groups have looted and set ablaze several liquor stores in the once freewheeling city, where Shi’ite religious parties now wield power and seek to impose strict moral regulations, similar to Iran.
“More than 400 liquor stores run by Christians, the only community allowed to sell alcohol under the former Baathist government, were forced to close in the immediate aftermath of the US led occupation of Iraq. Basra was once a cosmopolitan trading centre and playground for rich Kuwaitis and Saudis who flocked to its casinos and nightclubs in the midst of an austere region where alcohol was banned.
“‘Alcohol selling has changed from Christians to Muslims. Now it’s Muslims who sell after taking the trade from us,’ said an embittered Joseph Hanna, a Christian property developer and hotel owner who blames militant Shi’ite groups for the killings. ‘We fear for our lives and our interests from the extremist Shi’ites who are targeting us as Christians,’ said Misak Victor, another liquor merchant.
“Iraqi Christians are terrified of armed Shi’ite groups, which have names like God’s Vengeance, God’s Party and the Islamic Bases Organisation. Their members roam the streets to chase mobsters, drug addicts and prostitutes, exacting their brand of what they call God’s law.
“The number of parties carrying Islam’s banner is a force to reckon with in the post-Saddam political order, holding sway in local councils and competing with a beleaguered police force in imposing order in the unruly streets. Abdullah Faisal, head of the Islamic Bases Organisation, says Islam venerates his young ‘martyrdom seekers’, who have a mandate from God to stamp out vice.
“But Faisal says the killings of liquor traders were carried out by undisciplined militant Islamic groups and that Islam opposed the summary executions witnessed in Basra. ‘Some Islamic movements have challenged liquor merchants. There was burning and killings,’ he said. ‘Religion doesn’t allow this even though we confront vice and crime.’
“Unlike the majority Shi’ites long persecuted by Saddam Hussein, many Christians found that Saddam’s Baath party and its secular pan-Arabist nationalist ideology tolerated them. ‘We never saw harm under Saddam Hussein,’ said Tareq Boutros, a former liquor store owner who now runs a garment business.
“Christian Iraqis fear that militant Shi’ite militias want to impose an intolerant brand of Islam on minorities and rival Muslim sects. They say Shi’ite power in postwar Iraq has allowed them to dominate a new police force, which they say is corrupted by a mix of local mobsters and militant Islamic parties. ‘You now find police in the streets, but I am certain if a murder takes place in front of them they would not deal with it. If you talk to a police officer he will tell you I cannot do anything,’ said Sami Shamas, a mathematics teacher.
“‘Those who sell drinks are killed but thieves who steal homes or kidnap girls are left free,’ said an angry Christian who refused to give his name.
“Families cite growing intolerance in Basra’s society at large, with schoolgirls and female university students under intimidation from teachers to wear the veil. ‘Our daughters are being fought. They are telling them you have to wear a veil and become a Muslim,’ said Abdulahad Wissam, a Christian who runs a chain of household goods stores.
“Fears of worse to come have prompted more than 2,000 families from the community of at least 100,000 Christians in the city to pack up and leave. Most headed to northern Iraqi cities such as Mosul where their ancient communities trace their ancestry, their leaders say. ‘A lot of Christian families have left for Mosul and Baghdad,’ said goldsmith Naji Ahanyous. ‘If this situation continues there will not be one Christian in Basra.'” And that’s just the way the Shi’ites want it.