When I first heard the news of bombings in Baghdad's Christian neighbourhoods last week, preceded by a hostage-taking in a church where 50 died, I thought of Maryam.
Not Maryam, the mother of Jesus, of whom there are more mentions in the Koran than in the Bible. But Maryam the 65-year-old Iraqi Christian woman I met last March at the Virgin Mary Chaldean Church in Baghdad's once middle-class and religiously mixed neighbourhood of Karradeh.
Maryam's attempts at claiming refugee status - in the wake of millions of Iraqis of all faiths fleeing post-invasion violence - were foiled when she could no longer afford to live alone in Damascus on her meagre United Nations stipend. She returned to a broken Baghdad, once home to more Christians than any other Middle Eastern city, where neighbourhoods had morphed from predominantly mixed in 2003 to mainly sectarian by 2008. Now concrete blast walls and armed gangs keep its former cosmopolitanism at bay. Ironically, the invasion led by two "men of faith" has left Iraq's once million-strong Christian community, which survived even the Mongol hordes, more vulnerable than ever.
When I met Maryam last spring, she was desperate. "Please help me get out of here," she pleaded. She was continually harassed, she told me, by her new neighbours, rural Shia Muslims who had come to Karradeh from the south after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. "They tell me I'm a bad woman, and that I will go to hell."
But as Maryam tearfully blurted out her story of living alone as a virtual shut-in, terrorized by local militias and longing to join family members abroad, she already seemed to be in hell.
Since I first began reporting from Iraq in 1997, the Virgin Mary Chaldean Church was always the place I visited to gauge how things were going not only for Iraqi Christians but for society as a whole.
In the fall of 2003, I went to mass and was welcomed by dozens of Christians who insisted on having me film their personal video greetings to relatives in Mississauga on my tiny camera, somehow assuming they would be magically broadcast across Canada. Even then, after the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority rewrote the old civil constitution along sectarian and sharia lines and excluded Christians from the newly appointed interim governing council and some six months before the first fire bombings of churches began, they clung to the belief that the "Christian" West was on side and would help them.
After all, Iraq's Christian community is one of the oldest in the world, and many can trace their ancestry back to Babylon. Iraq is steeped in biblical history, from Ur, the birthplace of Abraham, to St. Thomas's sojourns in Basra. Even in 2001, under the strain of sanctions, Saddam Hussein and post-9/11 tensions, when many Iraqi Christians began to emigrate, I recall the grace and wit of the Chaldean patriarch. "Some call us agents of the West," he said. "But when the American bombs fall, they are not especially aimed at Muslims or Christians. They're for everybody."
In a similar vein, recent attacks against Christians are a sad testament to Iraq's shift from secular to sectarian, one that has cost the lives of thousands. I hope Maryam will stay safe. But I also hope she'll continue to light candles at her church's shrine to the Virgin, as her ancestors have done for two millenniums.
Hadani Ditmars is the author of Dancing in the No-Fly Zone: A Woman's Journey Through Iraq.
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