By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

GLENMOORE – Three thousand years is a very long time. That’s how long Manahel Awda estimates her ancestors, the Chaldeans, have lived in Iraq. That is 1,000 years before Christ preached His Gospel of love, and 1,700 years before the rise of Islam, the predominant religion in today’s Middle East.

There are, or were perhaps, 1 million Christians living in Iraq, with a majority of them, like Awda, Chaldean Catholics. The Chaldean rite is a branch of the Catholic Church whose liturgical language is a form of Aramaic, very similar to the language of Jesus.

Christian numbers in Iraq are hard to come by because, faced with increasing persecution, Christians are leaving in droves. Awda estimates one third of the Christian population has left since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Islamic militant terrorism. {{more}}

“In the beginning we never thought to leave our country because it is our country,” said Awda, who has a doctorate in civil engineering from the University of Baghdad.

But leave she did in September 2007, settling in Glenmoore, Chester County. After temporary work at Villanova University, she is now teaching and doing research work at Temple University’s Ambler campus. Her husband Thamer, also an engineer, had a difficult time finding work but is now employed in Virginia as a quality control engineer.

The family exodus really began with their children. First their son, Habib, came over through a Catholic exchange high school program and was sponsored by Janice Kelsey of St. Elizabeth Parish, Upper Uwchlan. His brother, Dany, came the next year; they are both Temple students. Their sister, Dana, is a senior at Villanova.

Awda did not want to send her children away but felt she had no choice.

“Many of my friends, their children were kidnapped and killed. Many churches were bombed. We were afraid to go to church. Our parish priest was kidnapped and killed. My parents’ home was bombed. What kind of life did we have then?” she asked.

Awda and her family lived in a neighborhood that was mostly Christian, and generally the Christians did not get involved in the politics of the country. As a tiny minority, they stayed mostly to themselves and avoided trouble. The Christians that remain still do; the churches have no politics, in contrast to the mosques, which are affiliated with the various political factions fighting for control of the country, Awda said.

Life for Christians changed for the worse after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the central government was replaced by factionalism, including the fanatics who hate Christians.

“The Sunni extremists attack us, the Shiite extremists attack us because we are ‘unbelievers,'” she said.

“One of our neighbors was killed. We were terrified and living in horror,” she said. “Every day when we said goodbye and left for work we weren’t sure we would live that day. We weren’t sure we would come back safe. On my way home from work I would be always looking in the mirror, afraid someone was going to attack and kill me.”

Ultimately and with great regret, Awda and her husband decided it was time to leave, and with assistance from an international refugee agency they came to America.

It was not an easy decision. “We lost everything. I worked for 25 years and my husband worked for 30 years,” she said. “We left with nothing but our clothes. It’s not easy to leave with nothing; if you have kids how are you going to feed them?” she asked.

Many other Christians would like to leave, but have yet to find the means. But the situation is becoming increasingly worse. Nothing exemplifies it more than the Oct. 31 attack on Our Lady of Salvation, Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic Cathedral, Awda believes. Although she is Chaldean Catholic, she is familiar with the Cathedral and has worshipped there herself, as did many others in the close-knit Iraqi Christian community.

Accounts of the outrage, which left 58 dead and 75 injured, have spread around the world, thanks to the Internet. The attack by seven or eight terrorists came during a Sunday liturgy; the priest had just finished proclaiming the Scriptures when the terrorists, armed with rifles and suicide vests, burst in. When the priest-celebrant tried to reason with them, they simply shot him dead. Another priest was also killed. The congregation was made to lie on the floor and the terrorists began shooting the men and boys, and even some women.

“Kill them all, they are our enemies and they are going to hell,” one terrorist reportedly said.

According to the survivors, at least some of the terrorists may not have been Iraqis “because they had a different accent,” Awda noted.

Meanwhile the Iraqi security forces were milling around outside before ultimately breaking into the cathedral and killing the terrorists, not seeming to know how to handle the situation. “They aren’t trained,” Awda said.

She believes the cathedral massacre will galvanize many more of the Christians still in Iraq to seek means to leave.

Awda is pessimistic as to what the United States or any other external power can do to assist Christians of Iraq at this point.

“We didn’t want anything. We didn’t want to be in the government, we just wanted to live in peace,” she said. “The invasion made a mess. They turned the country back a hundred years, they ruined it. And I don’t know how it can be fixed.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.