Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Iraqi Christians fleeing to Syria

10,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to Syria, according to Emanuel Khoshaba, a representative of the Iraqi Assyrian Democratic Movement in Syria. 90 percent of them arrived after the Iraqi war began in March last year. Scores of Iraqi Christian families move to Syria and Jordan every day, but the exact figures cannot be confirmed with government officials as Syrian and Jordanian immigration forms do not ask a person's religion.

"I have run away because gangs kept on threatening me," said Adeeb Goga Matti, 48, who belongs to a wealthy Chaldean-Assyrian family in Baghdad. He said his 10-year-old nephew, Patrous Yakou, was kidnapped at the end of 2003 and released only after his family paid a ransom of $15,000 (U.S.). After the kidnapping, Matti stopped sending his four children to school.

"Chaldean-Assyrians are the easiest targets for gangsters because they don't belong to a tribal system like other Iraqis," Matti stressed. Muslim Iraqis tend to belong to clans who rally round and protect their members. Many are applying to emigrate to Australia, Canada, the United States and other Western countries.

Iraqi Christians are mostly Assyrians (sometimes called Syriacs or Chaldeans), a non-Arab ethnic group that pre-dated the 7th century Muslim-Arab conquests of the Middle East. A number of news reports have characterized life for Christians under Saddam as tranquil.

But according to Prof. Walid Phares, an expert on Christian minorities in the Middle East,

oppression of Assyrian Christians increased after the Ba'athists seized power in Iraq. Anti-Christian discrimination on the part of former regime included regulations forbidding Iraqis from giving newborn children any names other than Arab ones; a decision to place all church properties under the control of the government Ministry of Islamic Property; and a ruling that Christian churches publishing religious calendars had to include saying of Saddam alongside those of Jesus. Hermiz Shahen said Monday the Ba'athist regime deliberately classified Assyrians as Arabs.

Saddam's government razed hundreds of Assyrian villages in an attempt to assimilate the minority into Arab society. In the north, Assyrians also faced discrimination at the hands of the Kurds, who Shahen said had taken over "where Saddam failed." Assyrians had in general welcomed the liberation of Iraq and Saddam's departure. But maltreatment under the secular regime's "Arabization" policies has been replaced since the fall of Baghdad by attacks motivated by religious zealotry. "Hatred is now twice [as bad] as it was before."
The Syrian Baath never passed laws mandating the use of Arab names for Christians and has treated its Christians better than any other Arab country; nevertheless, many Syrians find the Christian use of European names obnoxious. Some even understand it to be a rejection of their Arab identity. In an article on religious education in Syria, I quoted one Muslim woman who complained bitterly about the recent fashion among Syrian Christians to name their children non-Arab names. Referring to the names of Christian children, she said: "They are all western: Joan, Andrew, Charles, Lara, George, Joel. None of these names are Arab. They used to name their kids Khalil, `Abdullah, Hasiiba, etc. This is an indication that they don't feel Arab. What is the meaning of these names? They have no meaning in Arabic. "

Issa Touma, a Syrian-Armenian photographer and curator, has been causing an uproar in his native Aleppo. Single handedly, he has declared "war" against Syria's Baath Party. "His boldness seems just enough to keep him out of jail," writes Megan Stack, in a delightful article in the LA Times. His ability to make the Baath look like the Keystone Cops is enough to make you fall in love with the Baath all over again.
It is a story about authoritarian rule and the improbable politicians it can create. Touma is a rare success story in a land where underdogs are traditionally crushed. "I know people would love to say it was Issa against the Baath Party, and in reality it was like that," Touma said. "But the politics I did the last two years, it was only to survive."

Touma adorns his galleries walls with all things scandalous - pieces by Jewish artists, portraits of nude men and women, videotaped performance art verging on the pornographic - none of it submitted to government censors for approval. His festivals lure artists from around the world to spill American jazz and African drums and Sufi dance into the chalky alleyways of this industrial town in the northern hills."

I hate people when they're like rabbits. Scared people, I can't even look at them," he said. "I know my work can help my country so much. If you haven't visited Syria, you don't know what is Syria. And I know the culture is stronger than any gun."
Syro-Iraq relations
Yassin Al-Haj Saleh, a Syrian journalist, has a interesting and well balanced article on what was going on "behind the kisses" between Allawi and Syrian Prime Minister Mohammed Naji al-Utri during their meeting last week. He writes that the Syrian government had security concerns of its own and asked for a list of Syrian dissidents (mainly Islamists) living in Baghdad, and "Allawi inaugurated his new relationship of trust with his Baathist neighbors by handing them that list."

It appeared that while security topped the Iraqi government's agenda, economic concerns topped Syria's.

Gerald Butt writes in the Daily Star that Iraqi crude won't be flowing through the region any time soon.

Syria received Iraqi crude oil before the 2003 war, freeing up extra quantities of its own crude for export from Baniyas. But in the aftermath of the invasion, a major pumping station on the Iraqi side of the border was ransacked, putting the pipeline out of service as an export route.

Studies for a new pipeline linking Iraq with Syria's Mediterranean coast, which has been under consideration for some time, are nearing completion. At present, Syria imports only a small quantity of Iraqi heavy crude via a pipeline that runs from Ain Zalah to Rumailah, in exchange for gasoline. Also, under a barter agreement, Syrian petroleum products and electricity are being supplied to Mosul and Baghdad.

Energy cooperation was on the agenda again during Allawi's talks in Beirut. A joint statement said the two sides had agreed to "hold urgent discussions to review ways for Lebanon to buy oil from Iraq and to reach agreement on reactivating oil pipelines from Iraq to Lebanon and exporting Iraqi oil via Lebanese ports." Both parties also agreed to "study the possibility of establishing a modern refining facility in Lebanon for Iraqi crude, and reactivating the oil pipeline to Tripoli, with Syria's cooperation."

The pipeline to Tripoli is a spur, from Homs, on the Iraq-Syria (Kirkuk-Baniyas) pipeline, that has not been operational since 1982 - the year that exports from Iraq to Syria were stopped as a result of a political dispute between Baghdad and Damascus over the latter's support for Iran in the 1980-88 Gulf war.

Even when security is re-established in Iraq and neighborly relations are put on a strong footing, there will still be the need to agree on the structure of the country's oil sector. The assumption of the oil professionals is that the industry will remain centralized, with revenue collected and distributed by the Baghdad government.

But not all Iraqis agree with this arrangement. Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, said while Kurds were prepared to negotiate with the central authorities over the sharing of all revenues from existing oil fields in the Kirkuk area, "all income from future oil finds there should belong to the Kurds themselves ... The problem is that the people in Baghdad don't understand the reality on the ground here."

This statement, along with the news that a Norwegian oil company had entered into an agreement with the Kurds to search for oil and gas in northern Iraq, prompted the Allawi government to issue a stern warning to foreign firms. The Ministry of Oil said "companies that wish to be welcomed here in the future should not enter into or try to pursue the implementation of agreements with persons who are not empowered to represent the sovereign Government of Iraq." So there are formidable political as well as security battles to be won before the agreements reached during Allawi's regional tour can be implemented.

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