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Groups call for relief for Iraqi Christians

WASHINGTON, D.C. (BP)–Several groups are calling for improved treatment of Christians in Iraq, whom they say are being martyred, persecuted or forced to flee the country in order to survive.

Julia Sorisho Rodgers of Christians for Assyrians of Iraq said among the atrocities are the bombing of more than 15 churches, the kidnapping and murder of 13 Assyrian women in Baghdad in August, and the beheading of a priest in Mosul in October.

“A lot of people in Washington don’t know who the Assyrians are,” said Rodgers, who organized a Dec. 4 rally outside the White House to protest the treatment of Assyrians, who include Christians, Catholics and Orthodox Church members.

“It’s highly personal for me because so many of my relatives [are] there,” added Rodgers, a Chicago native whose parents emigrated from Iraq. “They’re suffering from violence, lack of jobs and persecution. We’re being isolated for our faith.”

In addition to petitions circulating on the Internet, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has urged granting refugee status to these persecuted believers.

In November, the USCIRF wrote to Paula Dobriansky, under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs, urging her to expand refugee options for the ChaldoAssyrian and Sabean Mandean communities.

It also asked Dobriansky to urge the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to resume full refugee status for Iraqi asylum seekers and speedily assess claims.

In a Dec. 7 letter of response, Dobriansky said the government is concerned about Iraqi refugees’ plight.

She pointed out the government has funded the International Catholic Migration Conference to provide emergency financial, material and social service assistance to refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

In addition, Dobriansky said the U.S. has strongly urged the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to accelerate the pace of its refugee status determination screenings and refer Iraqis who need resettlement.

“The U.S. will provide funding to key UNHCR offices in the region to enhance their capacity to process such referrals and has received assurances from these offices that they will begin immediately to make referrals,” Dobriansky wrote.

However, the deputy director for policy at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom doesn’t interpret the letter as offering any commitments to grant refugee status.

“While the letter suggests the agency has promised to start doing that, we haven’t seen that happen yet,” Tad Stahnke told Baptist Press. “We still remain concerned.”

It is fair to say the U.S. government has done something about the situation by providing funds to the UNHCR, Stahnke said, but other issues the agency raised have yet to be addressed.

But concern for Iraqi Christians extends beyond refugee status. At least two groups have started electronic petitions calling for special protection of religious minorities.

Christians for Assyrians of Iraq (CAI) started its petition (http://ninevehplains.wordpress.com/) in mid-November. The Canadian-based Council of Assyrian Research and Development has also posted a petition at www.cardonline.org.

Both call for creating a special administrative unit in northern Iraq. CAI says that will allow Assyrians and other Christians to practice their faith, speak and teach their language, and work their land without fear of persecution.

USCIRF Commissioner Nina Shea said these Christians are caught between supporters of the war in Iraq who don’t want to acknowledge there are problems and those against the war who shun discussions of human rights.

In the middle are numerous innocent victims, said Shea, who recently briefed the Iraq Study Group about human rights conditions there.

“They are being bludgeoned by the Islamic extremists,” said Shea, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Center for Religious Freedom. “Their priests have been beheaded, churches bombed and there’s a recent report of a crucifixion of a teenage boy.

“The United Nations refugee report has determined they are being targeted for their faith. Although they represent about four percent of the population, they represent 40 percent of the refugee population from Iraq.”

There is some confusion over the terminology for these believers, said Rodgers, who chose to use “Assyrian” as the primary identifier, although others are known as Chaldeans or Syriacs.

ChaldoAssyrian is a political label assigned to various Christian groups during a transitional period prior to adoption of Iraq’s new constitution, according to Shea.

She said Sabean Mandeans are a small sect who still follow John the Baptist; another that is neither Christian nor Jewish is known as the Yizidis.

However, the common thread for all is they are being forced to flee or live under oppressive conditions for the “crime” of not being Muslim, added Shea, a speaker at the White House rally.

Pointing out that in 1940 one-third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish compared to only 25 Jews across all of Iraq today, Shea said the same thing is happening to Christians.

“There’s a saying in Iraq that after Saturday comes Sunday,” Shea said. “It’s been in graffiti; it’s on the walls. That means after the Jews come the Christians. The Jews have all left (except) an elderly remnant that’s too old to leave.

“Now the Christians are being driven out. I don’t see a way forward for them unless there is this administrative district. For humanitarian reasons, we need to grant refugee status to those who want to leave.”

The author of a 2004 report on human rights abuses, Shea said Iraq is undergoing the kind of Islamization that has existed for years in Saudi Arabia.

Although historically Iraq has been a pluralistic society, she said extremists are pushing to enforce Islamic law, both criminally and behaviorally.

As a result, Kurdish governors are refusing to hook up Christian villages to utilities and water and sewer systems that have been paid for by American taxes, Shea said.

When those residents leave for other nations, including those who hope to join relatives in the U.S., they are often the target of Islamic extremists, Shea said.

“There’s an extinction of an ancient Christian community,” Shea said. “It’s not only a loss to the church, it’s a loss for Christianity because they date to apostolic times.

“It is a loss for U.S. foreign policy interests because these people tend to be more skilled and professional…. They are also a force for moderation in Iraq. These people obviously don’t want Islamic fundamentalism seizing the day there.”

Although Rodgers supports granting refugee status to those who want it, she said CAI is more interested in a long-term solution that would enable Christians to stay in Iraq.

Christ’s followers have been there for hundreds of years and they want to remain, said Rodgers, who attends a Baptist church in Arlington, Va.

“We believe Christians are commanded to love others as ourselves,” Rodgers said. “Our faith will help us peacefully co-exist with people who are different.”

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker