Land of the free, home of the brave?

International | Saddam Hussein manipulated, but also protected, Iraq's Christian minority. But will democracy give rise to a hostile Islamist regime? Some fear persecution may be "the price we will pay," but others have "big hopes"

Issue: "Tyranny of the minority," June 7, 2003

TO THE AVERAGE AMERICAN, THE scene might appear surreal: In the shadow of Udai Hussein's private hospital, 400 or more evangelical Christians gather for a Sunday morning service. They pray the Lord's Prayer, sing "How Great Thou Art," and listen to a sermon about Jesus' fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Except for the Aramaic language and the lace scarves on the women's heads, it could easily be Birmingham, Ala., rather than Baghdad.

But Baghdad it is, former home to a murderous dictator who, oddly enough, happened to run one of the most religiously diverse regimes in the entire Muslim world. Saddam Hussein may have been hard on his Shiite rivals, but he treated Iraq's large Christian minority with surprising benevolence. Now that the secular strongman has been deposed, many Christians in Baghdad worry that the dawn of democracy in their country could spell the end of the freedoms they have long enjoyed.

The Arab Protestant National Church, largest of Iraq's evangelical congregations, is in many ways a monument to Saddam's lenient policies toward the Christian community. The church has a beautiful sanctuary, even by affluent American standards. The high, barrel-vaulted ceiling is supported by six square pillars, each topped by four gold crosses. The platform and the curved wall behind it are covered in pink marble, and cobalt blue crosses filter the sunlight from atop eight tall, stained-glass windows. Clearly, this was never an underground church, meeting in fear of discovery by the authorities. Instead, it was meant to be seen, an architectural tribute to the greatness of the God worshipped inside.

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Other churches did even better under the old regime. Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Armenians all boast lavish buildings with priceless artwork and historical artifacts. Iraqi Christians over the decades carved out a reputation as savvy businesspeople, and their churches reflect their affluence. Saddam liked to steer Western delegations through such places to show off his progressive outlook on religion.

"We were used as propaganda," says George Sada, president of the evangelical churches in Iraq, the smallest of the recognized Christian groups. "Saddam liked to show the world there was no difference between the religions in this country."

In this case, however, the propaganda was mostly backed up by facts. Christians say they faced little or no discrimination in jobs, education, or housing. In a few instances, being a Christian even helped in the job search: Saddam was famous for staffing his many palaces with Christians, whom he deemed more honest and trustworthy than either the clannish Sunnis or the fervent Shiites.

"With the Saddam regime, we Christians were happy," says Rasha Nabil, a dark, intense young woman who used to work in the UN's Oil for Food Program. "But I think the new regime supervised by America and Britain is even better for us. In the time of the war, there were too many people attending church, so that we cannot hold them all. Till now the churches are full because we feel free. I think after one or two months, when security is settled, we will get even freer." Already teams from her church have begun distributing Christian pamphlets on the streets of Iraq, something that was strictly forbidden under Saddam.

Jamal Stephan, an Armenian Christian, agrees that the church is freer now than it was under Saddam. "In the previous regime, we had freedom to gather in the churches, but we couldn't invite friends to pray in our homes," he says. "Every church leader had to file a report showing who was coming to church each week. That's over now. Now we feel full freedom."

There were other restrictions, too-ones that the average church member might not even have been aware of. The Baath Party "had full control of how the churches were going," says Mr. Sada, the evangelical leader. Although the regime didn't censor sermons in advance, they did sometimes put words in the mouths of ministers. "Many times they told the preacher, 'You should preach this, or you should say this propaganda for the regime.' Many times.

"In some situations they would tell us, 'Do your preaching to serve this purpose.'" Usually that meant slipping in some praise for Saddam or calling judgment on his enemies. "It was impossible to resist," according to Mr. Sada. "We would not preach whatever they wanted, but we would try to preach in a way that was acceptable to both [the regime and the church's beliefs]."

Many Shiite clerics, however, did resist. They took a more confrontational, politicized stance against the Baathists, a position that earned them Saddam's wrath. For some 30 years, the Shiite majority suffered systematic persecution and discrimination, ending up with the lowest education and the most menial jobs, despite their numerical dominance. Herded into vast slums where food, water, and electricity could be used as tools of domination by the regime, the Shiites festered for a generation in their bitterness and resentment.


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