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April 12, 2009

Remembering the plight of Christians in Iraq

By Michelle Martin


For Father Dominic Grassi, pastor of St. Gertrude Parish in Edgewater, it was a moment of grace when he met a small boy named Saad.

The child wandered into Grassi’s office one day before Halloween while he was waiting for his sister, who was being picked up from altar-server training. He picked up a little pumpkin from the priest’s desk and asked what it was. Grassi told him, and offered to let him take it home.

From that meeting, Grassi met Saad’s mother, Alhan Rizqallah, and learned the family’s story. Christians from Iraq, they had fled to Jordan and then, through the efforts of the U.N.’s High Command for Refugees, were sent to Chicago about 10 months ago. Northside Catholic Academy, which has a campus at St. Gertrude, offered education to Saad and his sister, Basma, and the family joined the parish.

The family’s story helped Grassi and St. Gertrude become more familiar with the plight of Christians in Iraq, who have been persecuted and forced to leave their homes in great numbers since 2004, about a year after the United States went to war with Iraq.

On March 29, the parish hosted a Mass for Iraqi Christians, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office for Peace and Justice.

“The evils we commit in our world are made more evil by our inability to see,” Grassi said. “We hear numbers of people killed, people displaced. They are read like scores, scores of some hideous sporting event. When we hear numbers, we don’t see the human faces behind it.”

Numbers dwindling

Some 40 percent of the more than 2 million refugees from Iraq are Christians, although Christians made up only 5 percent of the country’s pre-war population. The number of Christians in Iraq was about 1.4 million in 2004; now it is less than 700,000.

About 100 people attended the Mass to learn and to pray for the Christian community in Iraq, and the refugees who have made their way to Chicago and around the world.

Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Chicago-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council, attended the Mass and said that her group tries to raise awareness and money to help Iraq’s Christians.

“A lot of Americans didn’t even know there were Christians in Iraq,” said Taimoorazy, an Assyrian Catholic originally from Iran. While Iraq and Iran have been enemies in recent generations, their Christian minorities generally are from the same ethnic groups and religious traditions.

Before the U.S.-Iraq war, Taimoorazy said, Iraqi Christians lived peacefully among their Iraqi neighbors. They started being forced out, usually by Islamist extremists who came to Iraq from other countries, she said. First, they were told to pay a protection tax, convert or leave. Then their churches were bombed and clergy were kidnapped and killed.

A bullet warning

Mazin Khosho, who attended the Mass with Rizquallah and with Susan Birwari, another Iraqi who came to Chicago, said he took his family and left Iraq after receiving a bullet in the mail as a warning.

“It means you are their next target,” said Khosho, an architect who had worked for a multinational company with U.S. ties before the war. He left in 2005, after hiding out in his church for several days while trying to arrange a passport for his infant son.

Now he is working as a cashier at Whole Foods, trying to support his family and hoping to get a job with an architectural firm here.

But someday, he said, when it is safe, he wants to go back to Iraq and use his skills building up his homeland.

“That’s what we need,” he said. “Help to keep the Christians in Iraq.”