Pope in call to protect Iraqi Christians

The murder of a Christian man and his two sons has underlined the precarious situation facing Iraq's minority groups as the country prepares for a national election.

BAGHDAD // The murder of a Christian man and his two sons, gunned down in their Mosul home on Tuesday, has underlined the precarious situation facing Iraq's minority groups as the country prepares for a national election. The killings of Aishwa Maroki, a 59-year-old Assyrian Christian, and his two sons, aged 31 and 25, brought the number of Christians killed since mid-February to eight, and yesterday prompted Pope Benedict XVI to call on the Iraqi authorities to improve security.

Promises from the government to hold an inquiry into the incident have done little to soothe the anger felt by Iraq's Christians, who point out that the killers never seem to be brought to justice. That frustration spilt into the streets of Baghdad yesterday, with dozens of Christians protesting the killings. Demonstrators, carrying Iraqi flags, called on the international community to safeguard their rights.

"The government has done nothing so far," said Bishop Shlemon Warduni, a senior member of the Chaldean clergy present at the protest. He insisted Christians did not want to get caught between feuding political parties. The murders do, however, appear to have strengthened the resolve of Iraq's various religious minorities to take part in the March 7 elections. "Many thousands of Christians have fled from Iraq, there is still violence from al Qa'eda and the militias, and we have little faith in the government," said Yusef Eed Saba, a doctor with a clinic in central Baghdad. "But for those reasons, we must vote, we must have hope that the next government will improve the situation.

"As Christians we do not want to abandon Iraq, we want to work for a future as a unified nation, with the people living as one, regardless of sect or ethnicity." Large numbers of Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan are Christians, Yezidis or Sabaeans. The United Nations in Syria lists more than 30,000 registered refugees from minority groups, most of whom fled from sectarian violence in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul.

In Ninewah province, where Mosul is the capital, some Christian villages have begun to deploy their own armed guards. Christian officials balk at the use of the term "militia" but locals say the force is all that stands between them and eradication at the hands of Muslim militants. Iraq's minorities have also found themselves sandwiched between Arabs and Kurds, with both sides trying to cajole them into backing their cause across a swathe of disputed territories. That has left many unclear about how to vote.

Near Sinjar Mountain, a Yezidi dominated area close to the border with Syria, residents complain they are afraid of both Arabs and Kurds. In particular they fear what will happen when the United States pulls out its military, which is scheduled to happen by the end of the year. Without a US guarantor, minorities worry the future will see them caught in a deadly overlapping crossfire between Sunni and Shiite Arabs and between Arabs and Kurds.

That uncertainty has, like the violence in Mosul, made at least some from the Yezidi community determined to take part in the election, with them viewing it as a chance to make their presence felt. "We will go to vote with fear in our hearts about what will happen after the election, but also with hope that the situation will get better, not worse," said Ayoub Murad, a 22-year-old Yezidi studying at Baghdad University. He said he expected a high Yezidi turnout.

Under Iraqi election laws, minority groups are guaranteed a minimum of eight seats in parliament, five reserved for Christians, and one for each of the other groups, Shabak, Sabaean and Yezidi. Haneen Kado, a sitting Shabak MP from Mosul, said violence against his own community had not increased as much as he had feared it might in advance of elections. "At the moment Shabak are always targets for armed groups and to al Qa'eda but there has been no increase in attacks," he said.

Mr Kado has been urging all of Iraq's minorities to turn out in force on polling day in order to assert themselves in the new government. "We have been fighting hard for our rights for the last seven years and we cannot stop now," he said. "I'm quite sure the Shabak wherever they are in Iraq will vote because they want their rights to be defended in the next parliament." Mr Kado insisted he was optimistic over the outcome of the vote. "The next government will be better than the one we have now," he said.

If the Christian community in Mosul has been heavily depleted by migration since 2003, Christians in Basra, south of Baghdad, have similarly watched their numbers decline as families fled to neighbouring countries or sought refuge in the West. Marwan Khafur, 34, a Christian from Basra, said the community's traditions had come under threat from the Shiite majority. "There are the militias on one side and the tribes on the other and we're just alone," he said. "They've made it so that we cannot buy or sell alcohol because Muslims do not drink. They don't care that according to our customs it is allowed for us. There is no tolerance."

An engineer by trade, he said he expected the election to be tainted by corruption. However, he said he would vote. "If the Christians here give their voice in the election, maybe it will be harder for the [Shiite] religious parties here to put their restrictions on us. "We are all hoping to see things change for the better." nlatif@thenational.ae

Grand Ayatollah, Ali al Sistani The cleric is Iraq's most revered Shiite religious leader. Since 2003, his decrees have had the gravity of law, and Ayatollah al Sistani, about 80, has repeatedly urged Iraq's Shiite majority to take part in elections. While he may represent a force for unity among Iraq's Shiites, there are questions about his health. Nouri al Maliki, prime minster Mr al Maliki was a leader in the Islamic Dawa Party, agitating against Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein outside Iraq before 2003. Mr al Maliki has emerged as a powerful force since he began battling Shiite militias in 2008 and consolidating power in the prime minister's office. But analysts say his star has begun to fade following catastrophic bombings that have eroded public confidence. Jalal Talabani, president Mr Talabani, a Kurd in his mid-70s, has been president since 2005. Mr Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan joined forces with fellow Kurds in the elections, but it has taken a hit from a new reform movement that ate into its influence in Kurdish parliamentary elections last summer. Masoud Barzani, Kurdish president Mr Barzani, a former Kurdish guerrilla fighter, has been a fierce critic of Mr al Maliki's efforts to centralise the state and hold back Kurdish ambitions to expand the boundaries of their largely autonomous northern region. Mr Barzani has courted foreign support for Iraqi Kurdistan in the face of fears from countries like Iran and Turkey about the ambitions of their own Kurdish minorities. Tareq al Hashemi, vice president Mr al Hashemi is the highest-ranking figure from Iraq's Sunni Arab minority. Mr al Hashemi has been an outspoken critic of the government and has positioned himself as a defender of the interests of Sunnis. Mr al Hashemi is running with the secularist Iraqiya list. Ayad Allawi, former prime minister A perfect English speaker who received his medical degree in London, Mr Allawi headed Iraq's transitional government from 2004-05. Mr Allawi is hoping to capitalise on Iraqis' disenchantment with the Islamist parties that have dominated Iraq since then. . Ammar al Hakim, head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council Last year, Mr al Hakim replaced his father, Abdul Aziz al Hakim, as head of Iraq's largest Shiite religious party when the elder cleric died of cancer. Mr al Hakim is not a candidate with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, which was established in Iran, but he plays a leading role in the largely Shiite Iraqi National Alliance it leads. * Reuters