"We Are in the Modern Catacombs," Says Young Iraqi Catholic

Thousands of Christian Families Reportedly Have Fled Baghdad

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BAGHDAD, Iraq, OCT. 26, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Iraq is seeing the rise of a new version of an old phenomenon: the catacombs.



"Iraqi Christians are obliged to celebrate Mass in churches' basements. They live under the constant threat of death," said Elias, a young Baghdad Catholic. He spoke with the Vatican agency Fides, raising the alarm and appealing to the international community and universal Church for help.

Elias, a committed Catholic whose family lives in Baghdad and Mosul, described the trauma of Christians in the Iraqi capital. "We cannot leave the house because the street is very dangerous," he said.

"At all hours of the day and night there are mines and mortar strikes that the insurgents launch against the Americans and against all those who work with the government," he added.

From the young man's description, a picture emerges of a "real civil war," characterized by the daily killings of "Iraqi police, soldiers and civilians."

"When one of us Christians leaves the house, one doesn't know if he will return safe and sound," the young Iraqi said. "Christian families are afraid for their children and women. Because of this, many are fleeing from the country."

Elias said that "after the first attack on churches in Baghdad," "more than 4,000 Christian families have fled to Syria and Jordan. Other faithful say that they want to stay and that they are not afraid of dying. In the history of Iraq, there have already been killings against the Christian community."

"In 1915, in the Christian city of Mardine, in the north of the country, there was real ethnic cleansing. My grandparents lived there. Around 1950, Christians suffered other persecutions and today this tragic history is being repeated," Elias said.

Christians have described the Aug. 1 attacks on six of their churches, four in the Iraqi capital and two in the city of Mosul, as a "day of blood." Seventeen people died and more than 100 were wounded.

Since that date, there have been further incidents of persecution. On Oct. 16, five bombs were detonated in five Christian churches in Baghdad.

"We lay Christians are also threatened because we often go to the churches to help the priests," Elias continued. "Today we celebrate Mass as the early Christians, in the basements of churches, with a few courageous faithful. We are in the modern catacombs."

Elias made a strong appeal to the international community and the universal Church to do "something to resolve this unbearable situation for us. We want only peace and tranquility!"

"The Muslim fundamentalists want to expel us from Iraq because they say that Iraq is Muslim land," he said.

"They call us, contemptuously, 'crusaders,'" he continued. "The radical groups draw other Muslim faithful and they are often encouraged by their own leaders. I believe that 80% of the mullahs are preachers of hatred and fuel fundamentalism.

"This is very serious. Sadly, if this tendency continues, Iraq will soon be a land without Christians."

Christians in Iraq belong to the Assyrian-Chaldean group, the third largest ethnic group in Iraq, after the Arabs and Kurds.

The total number of Christians is about 800,000, or 3%, of the population. They are subdivided in Catholics and Orthodox. Chaldeans represent 70% of the total number of Christians.