Peace activist sees hope for Iraqi Christians

By 
  • December 10, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - An Iraqi peace campaigner, on tour after receiving a Canadian human rights award, claims Christian Iraqi refugees — most of them stuck in Syria and Jordan — could safely return home to live in peace in Iraq.

“Let’s be honest. To get accepted here as a refugee, I have to talk about violence,” Ibrahim Ismaeel, chair of the board of directors of the Iraqi non-violence network La’Onf , told The Catholic Register.

Ismaeel said that Christians bore the brunt of sectarian violence unleashed after the 2003 American-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein.

“Christians particularly have suffered in Damascus and in Mosul,” Ismaeel said through an interpreter.

Several refugee organizations believe it is unsafe for Christians to return. But Ismaeel claims the level of violence in Iraq has significantly abated since 2008.

“Life is going back to normal at about 70 per cent,” he said.

Ismaeel claims Iraqi Christians suffered mostly at the hands of Al-Qaeda, an organization he sees as foreign to Iraq. Some refugees in Syria and Jordan who are unwilling to return are former Ba’athist Party officials who may fear returning to Iraq because they would be held accountable for crimes of the Saddam Hussein era, he said.

The Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 banned the Ba’ath party. Subsequent Iraqi governments have banned former Ba’ath Party members from jobs in the public service. For the well-educated Christian community the problem is that before 2003 Ba’ath Party membership was a prerequisite to sitting for university entrance exams as well as any high position in the public sector.

Most Iraqis see the restoration of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Iraq as inevitable and desirable, said Ismaeel.

“I’m sure no one has a problem befriending a Christian in Iraq,” he said.

But it’s an idea that contradicts the witness of every Iraqi refugee the Office for Refugees, Archdiocese of Toronto has sponsored, said refugee outreach worker Jenny Hwang.

“If they can stay completely quiet and obscure, if they’re willing to change their religion to Muslim, then maybe. But they can’t,” said Hwang. “Under Saddam Hussein it was a secular society, so there wasn’t much persecution. But right now it (persecution) is pretty rampant.”

Ismaeel is also refuted in a 50-page research report by the London-based Minority Rights Group International, which found the situation for all minorities in Iraq remains precarious and fraught with danger.

“Across Kirkuk and the Nineveh Plains where Christians, Yazidis and Turkmen have historical roots, violence shows no signs of abating,” said the September 2009 report.

While the government of Iraq has offered incentives for refugees to return, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migrants and other refugee organizations active in the region do not consider it safe to return to Iraq.

Ismaeel toured Canada as part of accepting the John Humphrey Award from Montreal’s International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development , known as Rights and Democracy. The award is named after John Peters Humphrey, a McGill University law professor who wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Since 2006 La’Onf has taken the non-violence philosophies of Mohandas Ghandi, Martin Luther King and others and applied them to developing a more democratic Iraq, said Ismaeel.

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