Iraqi Christians and Saddam Hussein

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By Paul Eedle

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Laying out the bunting to be ready for Easter. Near Mosul in northern Iraq.

The Baath Party which propelled Saddam Hussein to power in Iraq was founded by a Christian - Michel Aflaq. In fact some Middle East scholars have said it is no coincidence that Arab Christians were over-represented in many of the region's revolutionary movements. To be an Arab and a Christian provoked an identity crisis for many long before the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and many sought to take refuge in radical revolutionary movements where religion was not an issue.

Other Arab Christian revolutionaries: George Habash, leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Nayef Hawatmeh, leader of a faction of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Both these groups rejected Yasser Arafat's peace deal with Israel and still call for guerrilla struggle against the Jewish state. George Hrawi, the founder of Lebanon's Communist Party, was also a Christian.

The Baath Party's ideology was secular Arabism: the idea that all Arabs, 'from the Gulf to the Atlantic' should unite into one, radical, revolutionary nation. It was not religion but nation that was the core idea, and in fact Arab nationalism was first fed in universities and among intellectuals heavily influenced first by the European nationalist movements of the nineteenth century, and then by the wave of Third World nationalism which swept the South towards the end of the European colonial era.

Those ideas now have little energy left in Iraq. Saddam Hussein is the Baath Party to all intents and purposes and any coherent ideology dissolved long ago in the sheer struggle to retain power.

But the secular ethic still holds in Iraq and this helps the Christian minority. For example, you're less likely as a Christian woman to stand out if many Muslim women also do not wear traditional Islamic veils. And social customs like drinking alcohol are part of the way the Iraqi elite has lived for generations now. This kind of atmosphere makes the Christian minority less conspicuous and therefore less vulnerable to attack.

Tareq Aziz, Saddam's First Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister at the time of the Gulf War, is a Christian. His middle name is George. There are other Christians in the senior ranks of the Baath Party, though it is rarer to find them in the higher ranks of the armed forces and security services. Saddam had a trusted personal bodyguard who was a Christian, Hani Gegeo, who was beaten to death by Saddam's eldest son Uday because the Iraqi President used him to carry messages to one of his mistresses. Saddam sent his son into exile for a time because of the murder.

The Baathist regime has bent with the wind to some extent. As the tide of Islamic fundamentalism rose across the Middle East, Saddam made more strenuous efforts to show he is a good Muslim. Every speech he makes these days is peppered with quotations from the Koran and he is frequently photographed praying.

But the basic dynamic of Saddam's regime - Baathist ideology or not - is not generally hostile to the Christians. Saddam's regime is itself a minority, and is focused on the threat posed by the larger sections of Iraqi society: the Shiite Muslims who probably make up over half the population now, compared to perhaps 25 percent represented by the Arab Sunni Muslim community Saddam Hussein and his clique mostly belong to. The Kurds, who number 20 percent and who have spent the last eight years living outside the control of the Baghdad government. Iraq's Christians, well represented in the professions but not the armed forces, dispersed across the country and numbering only five percent of the population, are not perceived as a threat.

In fact, the Christian minority may have more to fear if he leaves power.  The brutal repression and violence which have been an essential part of public life in Iraq fro a generation now has traumatised Iraqi society, and there are signs of increased religiosity as a response. At the same time as Saddam has made a greater show of Muslim piety, he has been ruthless in dealing with Islamic fundamentalist opposition, and many analysts think this will cause a huge counterreaction whenever the lid is blown off the pot. Christians could be in the firing line.

The famous exile Kanaan Mekiyya, in his book Cruelty and Silence, relates how a Muslim woman pushed in front of a Christian woman in a queue in Baghdad and called her a dog. The Christian woman held her ground, shouting that her husband and brothers had defended Iraq in the army during the long war with Iran. But there is a sense of unease among Iraq Christians that such incidents are a trickle that could one day turn into a flood.

One Iraqi Christian exile group estimates that perhaps only 10,000 Chaldaean Christians are left in their ancestral villages, compared to 130,000 20 years ago. There's no independent confirmation of these numbers but the trend of Christians leaving their rural heartlands and heading for cities has been noted by many analysts. The exiles blame Kurds, locked in a nationalist struggle with Baghdad, and accuse them of pursuing a systematic policy of clearing Christians - who they regard as Arab and therefore potentially hostile.

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 Sects
 Iraqi Christians
 Easter