BAGHDAD, Iraq—Leaders of the ever-dwindling Christian population in Iraq say bombings of their churches and attacks against their communities may force them to take up guns.
Two more churches were bombed in Mosul last week, the latest attacks, and some Christians say extremist Muslims are terrorizing them with the intent of ousting them and seizing their houses and belongings.
Iraq is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, made up largely of ethnic Assyrians, an ancient people who speak a modern form of Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. But as the turmoil increases, hundreds of Christian families are leaving each week for exile in Syria and Turkey.
Some Christians have called for the establishment of a "safe haven" in Iraq's north, where they would be protected by special Iraqi army units. Others are threatening to add a Christian militia to Iraq's already militarized society.
"Assyrians need security, so we need a legal army within the Iraqi army to protect ourselves," said Michael Benjamin, a leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement.
Said another Assyrian leader, Yonadem Kanna, "We do not want to transform our movement into a militia, but if we need to we can arm more than 10,000 people."
Christians are only a sliver of Iraq's population, but their leaders argue that driving them from Iraq would make it unlikely Iraq could ever develop into a nation that values religious pluralism and tolerance. Estimates of how many Christians have left Iraq in recent months range from 10,000 to 40,000 people.
Christians have lived in the region nearly since the dawn of Christianity. They are believed to number about 800,000, or about 3 percent of Iraq's population.
Many Christians are Chaldeans, or Eastern-rite Catholics, but there are also Christians who follow Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant lines.
Most Christians live in Baghdad or near Mosul, the modern city that surrounds what had been the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh more than 4,000 years ago. Christian communities dot the Plain of Nineveh.
Many Christians have collaborated with U.S. forces, hoping that Iraq will become a democratic and free secular state. Their links to Americans, often as translators, have put them under threat. Some anti-U.S. Sunni Muslims warn that anyone aiding the Americans should be killed, or even beheaded.
As Iraq's turmoil deepens, religious tolerance has lessened. Christians in Mosul and Baghdad report receiving pamphlets ordering women to cover up for modesty.
"Other forms of pressure and threats include pressure to sell lands, the coercion of women to wear veils, and the abduction of women for marriage against their will," said a statement late last month by 11 Christian groups in the Middle East.
Even as elections approach on Jan. 30, and Christian groups put forth slates of candidates, many Christians say they are losing hope.
"The Christians have no future here," said Athnaiel Isaac, a 23-year-old deacon in Baghdad. "We may be under the same pressures that made the Jews leave Iraq (following World War II)."
Isaac said he will leave soon for Syria and that his al Wehda district of Baghdad is emptying of Christians.
"I know about 100 families that have left the al Wehda neighborhood in the last three months," Isaac said.
Other Christians said the nation's turmoil leaves them vulnerable.
"The extremist Muslims are attacking us because the coalition forces are not controlling the country," said Hayraw Bedros, an Armenian Christian.
Many of Iraq's churches have thrown up protective walls or placed perimeter barrels filled with cement to protect against car bombs. Some services have been cancelled following coordinated church bombings in Baghdad and Mosul Aug. 1, in which 11 people died, and subsequent bombings Oct. 16, Nov. 8 and again last Tuesday.
In last week's attacks, insurgents bombed an Armenian-Catholic church and the Chaldean bishop's palace, on the banks of the Tigris River in Mosul.
Christians say they have had to find new places for worship.
"I used to go before to Saint George Church but now it's destroyed," said Lilia Hermez, a 70-year-old Baghdad resident.
Ironically, many Christians are facing worse times than under Saddam Hussein's secular regime. Saddam viewed Christians as non-threatening and elevated a Christian, Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, as the public face of his regime. But he also barred Christians from building new churches and kept strict controls on them.
Following Saddam's ouster last year, many Christians were heartened by an interim constitution that guaranteed basic religious freedom.
But as violence increased, including kidnappings of some rich Christians and beheadings of others who worked for the U.S. military, some Assyrians demanded creation of a "safe haven" in land currently governed autonomously by Iraqi Kurds.
The proposal has been rejected for fear it could spark conflicts between Christians and Kurds, and lead to a ghetto for Christians.
Some young Christians disagree with the idea of setting up a special army unit or militias to protect their community but want more help from abroad.
"We need help from the Christians abroad," said Ivan Anto, a 23-year-old dentist. "If they can't help the Christians here, let them help those who want to emigrate."
Iraqi Christians living abroad—including several hundred thousand in the United States—may play a significant role in the nation's immediate future.
Iraq's election authorities recently decided to permit exiles to vote in Jan. 30 elections, and expatriate votes may help Christian groups win seats in a National Assembly that will shape a new constitution.
(Special correspondent George is an Iraqi working for Knight Ridder in Baghdad. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Tim Johnson contributed to this report.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.