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Exiled Iraqi Christians vote with concern about their future


SKOKIE, Ill. — Yalda Hajey, draped in traditional Assyrian scarves around his neck and waist, with red and green feathers protruding from his hat, dropped his vote into a ballot box, dipped his finger into a purple ink sponge and sprang into an Iraqi jig.

But Hajey’s dancing mood turned somber as he talked about recent killings of fellow Christians in Iraq, including three bodyguards protecting a Christian ministry official and two men putting up posters in support of a Christian candidate. Media reports said their splattered blood covered the posters.

“I’m voting for those who martyred themselves,” said Hajey, 53, of Chicago, who cast his ballot Dec. 13.


Ancient root of Christianity

Like Hajey, many of the tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians in the United States are deeply concerned about the future of their religious community in their native land. While the world’s focus has largely been on Iraq’s Muslim Shiites and Sunnis, Christians in Iraq are an important and suffering religious minority.

According to Iraqi legend, Christianity first came to the region by one of Christ’s original apostles, with speculation centering on Thomas, who the Bible famously describes as an initial skeptic of the resurrection. Iraq has been called an ancient root of Christianity, but its Christians say they are as vulnerable as ever, making up an estimated 4 percent of the country’s 26 million population.

“Christians are, in terms of history, the oldest inhabitants of Mesopotamia, known as modern Iraq,” said Edward Odisho, a professor of culture and lingusitics, specializing in the Middle East, at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.

Odisho said that Christianity predates Islam in Iraq by centuries, and “in the absence of democracy, they (Christians) have used religion as an umbrella to bring them together.”

Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Syrian Orthodox and Church of the East are among the Christian denominations represented in Iraq. But their numbers have decreased recently due to terrorism.


Emphasize identity

This election has allowed Iraqis living in the United States and elsewhere to vote over three days for a new government for their homeland. Of the eight American cities hosting elections, Pleasanton, Calif., and Skokie are expected to receive the highest Christian turnout, possibly in the thousands, election officials said.

Iraqi-American Christians are voting, Odisho said, because they want to “emphasize their historical, ancient identity as the indigenous people of Iraq and as the speakers of one of the most historical languages in the world, Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke.”

Voters cast ballots mindful of the past, but with an eye to the future.

“I’m voting because we elderly have to lead the way for our children,” said Phillip Lado, 73, speaking in his native Assyrian language. “We want to ask God to pour peace into our dear country of Iraq.”

Many Iraqi expatriates want a Christian representative in their native land’s national assembly so the security concerns of Christians can be heard. In the January elections, one of the five Christian representatives in the temporary assembly was elected almost entirely by out-of-country voters.