FROM JUDITH SUDILOVSKY IN AMMAN, JORDAN
CHRISTIAN refugees fleeing Iraq have complained that life was better under the ousted dictator Saddam Hussein than it is in a country now riven by civil war and sectarian massacres.
Seen as allies of the West, Christians and their institutions have become targets of extremist Islamic groups in Iraq, say Iraqi Christians.
"Christians are facing a big problem in Iraq. Maybe all Iraqis are facing big problems, but I am talking about the Christians now," said Ra'ed Bahou, the Pontifical Mission for Palestine's regional director for Jordan and Iraq.
No matter how cruel and despotic Saddam Hussein's regime was it kept the lid on any sectarian violence, said one Iraqi Catholic refugee in Jordan, who asked that his name not be used. He said Saddam, a secular leader, was especially good for Christians, as long as they stayed out of the way. "Saddam [controlled] everything. Nobody could say anything bad especially [about] us Christians," he said. "Christians in the Middle East are very good people. We are peace-loving people."
Another refugee said that after years of living in fear and daily bombings many Iraqi Christians felt they were actually safer with Saddam. "We are getting tired. When Saddam was in power there was no fighting. Saddam loved the Christians. We were safer with Saddam; now we just leave the country," he said.
Christians make up about five per cent of the 15 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan, said Mr Bahou, whose agency is under the auspices of the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association.
Most of the Christians in Iraq were part of the middle-class and had a relatively good standard of living before the war, Mr Bahou said. Like most Christians in the Middle East, they devoted a lot of their time to their children and their education. "When there is a threat [against] their children's lives, they leave Iraq," he said. "People are leaving for their children."
At least six Iraqi priests have been kidnapped and five Christian churches bombed in the past few years. At first the Islamic extremists targeted mainly Christiaas, but now they have turned against each other, said one relief official who works with the Iraqi refugees.
"In the end there will be no Iraq." she said.
Mr Bahou said he was "not optimistic about what is going on demographically.
"Before there used to be one million Christians in Iraq; now there are only half a million left. Everything is changing, and it will never be like it was before," he said.
With only one Chaldean Catholic priest attending to the pastoral needs of the Chaldean refugees in Amman, many Iraqi Catholic refugees have had to find their place within the churches of different rites. Jordanian churches have never been so full, said Mr Bahou, and worshippers must come early to find a seat at Sunday Mass.
Through the Franciscan Sisters of Mary, the Pontifical Mission in Jordan has sponsored a catechism training programme for Iraqi religious educators who have remained in Iraq. For at least three years workshops were held four times a year, twice in Jordan and twice in Iraq, in coordination with Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk. Religious experts from Lebanon also take part in the meetings, said Mr Bahou.
"Last year we held the two workshops in Amman but we were not able to hold any in Iraq because of the political situation," Mr Bahou said. Nevertheless, he said, "outside contact is very important" for the Christian religious community in Iraq. In addition, with so many Iraqis now living in Jordan, keeping the lines of communication open with their religious and spiritual leadership in Iraq becomes very important, Mr Bahou said.