DAMASCUS, Syria – A banner draped across a wall of a Damascus (search) church commemorated a long-ago massacre in neighboring Iraq, but hundreds of worshippers praying below worried about more recent violence that is driving Iraqi Christians (search) from their homeland.
"We offer these prayers for the souls of those who were killed in our brotherly Iraq," said a Syrian priest before reading the names of seven people killed Aug. 1 when suspected Islamic militants set off explosions at five churches in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.
In addition to the seven dead, dozens were wounded in the first major assault on Iraq's Christian minority since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled by a U.S.-led invasion in April 2003.
Even before the church bombings, Christians reporting harassment by Islamic fundamentalists had begun streaming out of Iraq, many to neighboring Syria (search). Syria's relaxed visa rules for Arabs and its geographical and cultural proximity to Iraq have attracted thousands of Iraqis, Muslim as well as Christian, seeking to escape chaos at home. A disproportionate number of the refugees, though, have been Christian.
The Iraqi Embassy in Damascus and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimate the number of Iraqis of all faiths in Syria at about 250,000. Some 12,000 of these have registered with the UNHCR — of which 20 percent are Christians. Yet Christians make up just 3 percent of Iraq's population of about 25 million. The major Christian groups include Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians.
Benjamin Chamoun showed a reporter a handwritten death threat signed the "Islamic Resistance Group" he said he had received for working as a driver at a U.S. military base. He quit three months ago, but at first didn't consider leaving his homeland. Then came the church bombings.
"There is nothing worse than attacking churches," added Chamoun, who is a member of the Chaldean-Assyrian church, the major Christian sect in Iraq.
"We, as Christians, are not persecuted by Muslims. Our problem is with Muslim extremists," said the 35-year-old Chamoun as he sat in an apartment in the Jaramana area on the outskirts of Damascus. Jaramana has become an Iraqi Christian neighborhood.
Chamoun, who fled with his wife, two daughters and son, hopes to emigrate to Australia. If he doesn't get a visa, he said he will try to find a job in Syria and wait for the situation to improve back home.
Under Saddam, even in the later years when the Iraqi leader attempted to rally support by waving the Islamic banner, Christians were free to practice their religion and lived relatively peacefully among the Muslim majority. Some, like former Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, even rose to prominence.
History has seen other periods of sectarian tension and violence in Iraq. The Sunday Iraqis in Syria were praying for those killed in the church bombings fell a day after Martyrs Day, one of the most important days on the Chaldean-Assyrian calendar. It marks the 1933 massacre by the Iraqi government of Christians demanding more rights. Chaldean-Assyrians say some 3,000 people, including women and children, were killed in Simele, a town in northern Iraq.
"Aug. 7 will remain a symbol of honor for our people and their national identity," read a banner still hanging Aug. 8 during Sunday services at the Chaldean-Assyrian Abraham Church in Damascus.
Islamic extremism has been on the rise in Iraq in the chaos since Saddam's fall. Some trace this to the arrival of foreign Muslim militants drawn to Iraq by the chance to attack Americans.
Iraqi Christians in Syria speak of Muslim extremists back home forcing even Christian women to wear Islamic veils or having their liquor shops burned — Islam frowns on alcohol.
"Iraqis from all sections of the Iraqi society have been approaching our office," said Ajmal Khybari, senior officer at UNHCR office in Damascus. "But in the past two or three months we have seen an increase of Iraqi Christians."
In one sign of how many Iraqi Christians are in Syria, an Iraqi church leader traveled to Damascus to mark Martyrs Day.
"We are against the immigration of Christians," Archbishop Touma Iramia Gewargis, head of the Archbishopric of Ninewa and Duhuk in Iraq, said during his visit. "We were against it in the past and are in the present and "future. We want to protect our nation because we are first-class citizens in Iraq."