02 September 2006

The final place of refuge for Christians in the Middle East is under threat

As Iraq and Lebanon are torn apart by sectarian mayhem and war, only Syria's religious tolerance offers refugees shelter, writes William Dalrymple, author of From the Holy Mountain.
This summer, as Baghdad spiralled out of control, with more violent deaths in one fortnight than in Israel and Lebanon together in nearly a month of warfare, Syria responded by providing asylum (though not work permits) to all Iraqis who were forced to flee, as well as free education for their children.

Talk to the refugees in Damascus, however, and you soon find that one group predominates: the Iraqi Christians. Although they made up only about 3% of the population of prewar Iraq - 700,000 people - under Saddam they were a prosperous minority, symbolised by the high profile of Tariq Aziz, Saddam's Christian foreign minister. Highly educated and overwhelmingly middle class, the Christians were heavily concentrated in Mosul, Basra and especially Baghdad, which before the war had the largest Christian population of any Middle Eastern town or city.

Like the Western Crusades of a millennium ago, one of the main effects of the Bush-Blair Crusade of the 21st century will probably be the destruction of Christianity in the region where it started, and has survived for two millennia.

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