Iraqi Christians Fear Rise of Shi'ites. (News)

Article excerpt

ARRIVING HOME from work a few weeks ago in Baghdad, Raad Karim Essa saw his furniture on the street. His Muslim landlord wasn't renting to Christians anymore.

"He told us not to argue and threatened us," said Essa, 42, a father of four. "He said the government was no longer here to protect us. What could we do? We feared for our lives." Added Amira Nisan, 38, Essa's wife: "The Muslims want to destroy us. I think we were better off under Saddam."

Such a sentiment is voiced increasingly today among Iraq's Christians, whose numbers have been estimated between 650,000 and 800,000. Like most of their compatriots, Christians greeted the fall of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with celebration and hope.

But in little more than a month, their desire for greater religious freedom has been replaced by fear of the fundamentalism rippling through Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim majority, which has moved quickly to exert its influence after decades of violent repression. Christian women say they've been harassed by Shi'ite men for walking on the street without head scarves, and priests complain that Shi'ite clerics inflame religious hatred by calling for the expulsion from Iraq of "nonbelievers."

The most overt acts have been directed at Iraq's liquor stores and manufacturers, almost universally run by Christians. The owners of those facilities say they've been threatened with death for selling alcohol, forbidden under a strict interpretation of Islamic law. "I'm afraid for my people," said Bishop Ishlemon Warduni, the leader of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic community, which represents about 80 percent of the nation's Christians. The remaining 20 percent is composed mostly of Syrians, Assyrians and Armenians, plus a small Protestant Reformed presence. "During the war, we were not afraid like we are now," said Warduni, 60. "All Christians are in danger."

In the first week of May, Warduni expressed his concerns in a letter to President Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. On May 13 the bishop was scheduled to make his case in a meeting with Jay Garner, the retired U.S. Army general who has been administering Iraq.

"We would like a guarantee of our rights, our freedom and our protection," Warduni said. "We have a 2,000-year history in Iraq, and that is now threatened. The fanatics would see us gone."

The worries are most pronounced in southern Iraq, a Shi'ite stronghold where clerics have issued the most strident calls for the creation of an Islamic republic. Underscoring the dangers, the Christian owners of two liquor stores were shot to death recently in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, after rebuffing demands to shutter their shops. …