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‘Leaving in droves’: Persecution driving Christians from Iraq as election nears

WASHINGTON (BP)–Iraq’s beleaguered Christians continue to flee their country because of attacks and threats at a time when their presence could be significant in helping democracy take hold.

The Chaldo-Assyrians, Iraq’s Christian minority, have been the targets of violence, apparently from Islamic militants, as the Jan. 30 election nears. The election will result in a transitional national assembly that will write a constitution and select a president in the next year. The country’s Christians make up only about three percent of Iraq’s population of 24 million, and their influence has been undermined further the last six months.

The exodus of the Chaldo-Assyrians, primarily to Jordan and Syria, increased after a wave of five church bombings Aug. 1. Another church was bombed in September, and the Chaldo-Assyrians have been the victims of kidnappings and murders, including beheadings, in recent months. There have been reports of acid being thrown in the faces of women who were not wearing veils and shootings of workers in video and liquor stores in Christian communities. Chaldo-Assyrians also have reported receiving threats of kidnappings.

About 40,000 Chaldo-Assyrians have fled Iraq since the August bombings, and the situation “has gotten worse,” religious liberty activist Nina Shea told Baptist Press.

The persecution “is accelerating,” said Shea, director of the Washington-based Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “They’re accelerating it now because this is an opportunity to drive [the Christians] out.”

The Chaldo-Assyrians “are leaving in droves and may be the only group that is completely eradicated from Iraq,” she said.

The persecution and forced exodus are not only injustices to the Chaldo-Assyrians, but they harm the policy goals of the United States, Shea said. There is a “real danger of a fundamentalist Shiite [Muslim] state being created,” she said. “[The Chaldo-Assyrians] are people who are pro-democracy.”

Southern Baptist public-policy specialist Barrett Duke called the plight of Iraq’s Christian minority “heartbreaking.”

“These peace-loving people are being decimated by hate-filled Muslim radicals and violent criminals simply because they are Christian,” said Duke, vice president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “The men, women and children of this 2000-year-old Christian community are being brutalized at will. The Iraqi leadership appears either unable or unwilling to do anything to help them. It is devastating to consider that freedom in Iraq may mean obliteration for Christians in that beleaguered land.

“I pray that God will hear the cries of these persecuted people and bring them relief,” he said. “I pray also that He will move freedom-loving people all over the world to press their elected officials to bring the power of their governments to bear on this tragedy, and that they will do it soon.”

The U.S. Commission on International Freedom wrote President Bush Dec. 23 about the threats to Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities, especially the Chaldo-Assyrians. The USCIRF made five recommendations to the president, including:

— Establish joint U.S.-led coalition and Iraqi security forces to provide protection for religious minorities and places of worship;

— Send funds for relief and reconstruction directly to the Chaldo-Assyrians instead of through Kurdish- or Arab-controlled bodies, since there are reports such funding is not being distributed to the Christian community. The Kurds are another minority that some observers describe as favored over the Chaldo-Assyrians.

— Prohibit direct American election aid to Iraqi political entities that do not endorse religious freedom and other human rights in the permanent constitution.

Though the exodus of the Chaldo-Assyrians from Iraq is not new, its recent increase has amplified a problem for them, a Chaldo-Assyrian living in the United States told Baptist Press.

“When you don’t have numbers on the ground, you are basically losing your rights because you don’t have the numbers to back up your demand for rights,” said Jacklin Bejan, a spokesperson for the Chaldo-Assyrian American Advocacy Council. “With the fall of Saddam [Hussein], it was a dream come true for our people. What we would never have imagined is this chaos, this near civil war.”