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Iraqi Christians determined not to be driven away by attacks

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Gewargis Radif is adamant that he won't be defeated by insurgents targeting Christians in Iraq.

So on Monday—Holy Cross Day for his Assyrian Orthodox sect—the retired defense industry worker lit a blue-bulb cross on his roof, then joined his wife and children on the street below to launch hand-held fireworks into the night sky.

He ignored the danger, of which there is plenty. Last month, a bombing outside a neighboring Roman Catholic seminary killed two family friends and shattered a dozen windows in his home. On Sunday night, an anonymous man phoned in a bomb threat to Radif's church a five-minute drive away.

Iraq's Christian minority has lived in relative peace with Muslim neighbors for centuries. Radif and many fellow Christians—though not all—are determined not to be intimidated or driven away by the current violence, which they're convinced has been launched by foreigners.

The violence sent Radif's Christian neighbor, wife and three kids packing to Syria. The 60 people who attended a holiday Mass at St. Bahnam and Sheik Matti Syriac Orthodox Church on Monday afternoon represented only half the number who attended the previous year, said Radif, who's a deacon there.

But Radif, like most Christian Iraqis in the capital, said Islamic extremists couldn't drive a wedge between them and their faith or their Muslim neighbors. "This is not persecution. These are not Iraqis doing this," said Radif, 55.

Shmael N. Benjamin, a leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, said the attacks were being orchestrated from outside Iraq in a bid to fracture their society and cause American efforts in Iraq to fail. The Assyrians are a minority Christian ethnic group in Iraq.

Iraqi Christians are easy targets because they don't have a tribal system that exacts revenge like many of their Arab Muslim counterparts, Benjamin added.

They're fiercely proud of their Iraqi heritage and with rare exceptions during the country's history have coexisted peacefully with Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic groups. Jews also lived peaceably in Baghdad before Israel was created in 1948, after which nearly all of them gradually emigrated.

The Radif family has spent the last 25 years in al Doura, a blended neighborhood of Christians and Shiite and Sunni Muslims who live comfortably amid one another's churches and mosques.

With the U.S.-led invasion and the chaos that ensued, Islamic extremists who were suddenly free of Saddam Hussein's grip turned their attention to eradicating Iraqis who didn't fit their ideal of a majority Muslim country.

Among the first targeted were Christians who sold alcohol. The government under Saddam gave liquor licenses only to non-Muslims. Eventually, churches came under attack, including four in Baghdad that were damaged in car bombings Aug. 1. A fifth church was targeted in Mosul on the same day. The blasts left 11 dead and scores more wounded.

Later that day, Radif's wife, Hayat, 50, said she ran out with several daughters to treat the injured who staggered past their door after a car bomb exploded in front of St. Peter's Seminary 300 yards away. Her husband and a close friend had been sitting in the living room watching the earlier church attacks on the Arabic-language TV station al Arabiya when the windows behind them shattered. Both escaped uninjured.

The blast killed another family friend and his fiancee.

"These are Duraid's and these are Yousef's pieces scattered everywhere," Hayat Radif wrote in a poem for the slain couple. "I ask you the saints of heaven carry these virtuous spirits."

The Radifs say their Muslim neighbors were as shocked as they were at the attacks and came to express their condolences. The prime minister's office extended official apologies and pledged money to repair the damage.

Muslim clerics, including the highest Shiite spiritual leader in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al-Sistani, condemned the attacks.

Even now, as church elders in Baghdad install surveillance cameras, put up barricades around churches and send scouts to peruse the vicinity for suspicious people and vehicles before their services, the Christians here are firm in their desire to keep cordial relations with other Iraqis.

Other Christians have chosen to leave, with more than 4,000 families registering as refugees in neighboring Syria, according to U.N. estimates. Hundreds more are returning to their ancestral villages in northern Iraq, Christian officials say. Some church officials in Baghdad report that their printing presses are swamped with baptismal certificates for those leaving so they can join congregations in their new homes.

Iraq's minister for displacement and migration, Pascale Warda, said that as many as 750,000 Christian Iraqis now lived abroad, roughly mirroring the number still in Iraq. She added that the emigration has been gradual over decades and dismissed reports of any mass exodus in recent months.

So do Christian political and religious figures. When Christians leave, it's because of escalating violence affecting all Iraqis, not violence targeting them, said Assyrian Bishop Gewargis Sliwa.

At his St. George church compound, parishioners have blacked out spray-painted graffiti on the exterior walls, although the words "traitors," "America" and "Long live Iraq" still peek through.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-CHRISTIANS

Iraq

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