For Iraqis, a Name May Mean the Difference Between Life and Death

Christians and Sunni Muslims in Iraq increasingly find it prudent, or at least a good career move, to change their names in order to conceal their religious identity.

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Christians celebrate Christmas Mass in Baghdad, 2014. Women, some of them with lace scarves draped over their heads, carry lit candles in a darkened church.
Christians celebrate Christmas Mass in Baghdad, 2014.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Omar Yassin al-Dulaimi, 29, from Iraq’s Diyala governorate, only wanted to be a civil servant. Friends suggested a name change could improve his prospects. Omar is a typical Sunni Muslim name; the government and the volunteer militias in the province are Shi’ite, so it’s best to conceal one’s Sunni identity.

Omar didn’t quibble, and changed his name to Mohammed. According to the Iraqi news website Niqash website, which reported Omar’s story, such name changes are not unusual. Hundreds of Sunni Iraqis are changing their names, even though the process is not simple. The Iraqi Interior Ministry generally does not allow first names to be changed, out of concern that criminals or terrorists might do so to evade arrest. The ministry only shows leniency for people named Saddam, who have been the target of abuse because of the association with the late deposed dictator.

Iraq’s Sunnis now find themselves in a position similar to that of the country’s Shi’ites before the 2003 war. A persecuted minority within Islam that constitutes 10 percent of the faith’s adherents, Shi’ism permits its members to take steps to protect themselves and their faith. They can include representing themselves as Sunnis and even praying at a Sunni mosque.

The experience is a familiar one for Iraqi Christians, who under Saddam were actually a protected minority, as they are under the Assad regime in Syria. But since the overthrow of Saddam, and especially since the Islamic State organization took control of large areas of Iraq and Syria, being Christian has become a dangerous business. Mosul’s Christians fled the city for Iraq’s Kurdish region or for Turkey. The Christians in areas of Syria taken over by Islamic State who were not murdered were forced to convert or flee. Iraq’s Christian population is estimated at around 200,000 today, compared to about 1.5 million before the war.

For these reasons, the Chaldean Catholic Church, to which many Iraqi Christians belong, has called on its followers to observe Christmas unobtrusively, “in silence, tears and grief,” in solidarity with the plight of Christians in the Middle East in general and in Iraq and Syria in particular. Christians in Iraq, it seems, have no need for directives from the church. In many Baghdad neighborhoods the holiday celebrations are low-key in any event. The posters that recently appeared in neighborhoods with significant Christian populations, featuring an illustration of Mary wearing a veil and text admonishing Christian women to “take the Virgin Mary as your role model and wear the hijab” cannot make the city’s Christians feel more comfortable.

A few thousand kilometers north of Baghdad, the situation is reversed: Christianity can be a lifesaver. European states such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic have openly said they will accept only Christian refugees from the Middle East. Germany has not made such a distinction, but refugees who have reached major cities in the country report recount that those who say they are Christian receive better treatment. Pastor Gottfried Martens of Berlin’s evangelical Trinity Church told the Associated Press that hundreds of Muslim asylum seekers, mostly from Iran or Afghanistan, were converted at the church, and that some have taken Christian names.

There have been reports of converts in German refugee camps being assaulted by Muslims, and several families who converted to Christianity have as a result left the camps and the aid provided in them by government and international agencies.

Religious identity is also a problem for some of the Christians, particularly ethnic Armenians, who fled to Turkey from areas controlled by Islamic State. Some have found refuge in the cities of southeastern Turkey where their ancestors were slaughtered or expelled a century ago. Once again, Armenians are living in a hostile Turkish environment, in which their ethnic and confessional identity make them potential targets.

Some have told reporters that they have taken on new names and have stopped praying as Christians. Their Kurdish neighbors, who until a few years ago were barred from giving their children Kurdish names, could tell them about name changes.

The wars in the region, which have scrambled the religious and denominational pecking order, have in the process also turned names into a potential threat. Where is it safe to be Omar, where is it better to switch to Ali, Hassan or Hussein, like the founders of Shi’ism? Is it okay to remain Mohammed or Suleiman in Europe, or would it be a smart move to be baptized and change your name to Martin or Johannes?

When religion is a pretext for war, faith would seem to be unnecessary. It’s enough to have the right name in order to survive — until the next war.

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