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An advocate for Iraq ‘s displaced Christians

ICC Note

A US lawyer born in Iraq is helping Iraqi Christians to get asylum in the United States . Christians are the most vulnerable groups in Iraq after the invasion of the country in 2003.

By David Zucchino

April 4, 2008 Iraq (Los Angeles Times) — The immigration lawyer and his client sat huddled at the defense bench in federal court, whispering in a foreign tongue.

Robert DeKelaita, born and baptized Christian in Iraq and raised in the U.S. , is a solidly built man who dwarfed his slender client, a frightened young Iraqi named Yousif Ibrahim. DeKelaita murmured assurances in a modern version of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Over the last decade, DeKelaita has obtained asylum for hundreds of Iraqi Christians threatened with deportation. He travels the U.S. to counsel distraught, uprooted men and women who have fled religious persecution in Iraq .

Repressed under Saddam Hussein, Iraq ‘s Christian population has been decimated since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Muslim extremists have murdered priests and burned churches and Christian-owned shops and homes. Priests in Iraq estimate that fewer than 500,000 Christians remain, about a third of the number as before 2003.

“No group was happier than Christians when Saddam fell,” DeKelaita said. “But no group is more disappointed with the way things played out.”

Each Christian released from federal custody is a blessing, he said. But for the most part, “I deal in misery, unfortunately.”

In August, DeKelaita got a 3 a.m. phone call from his mother in Chicago telling him that her brother had been kidnapped in Kirkuk , DeKelaita’s city of birth. The kidnappers demanded a $120,000 ransom, DeKelaita said. After a series of phone calls and e-mails to Iraq , his uncle was released. DeKelaita declined to say whether any ransom was paid.

Unlike Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, Iraqi Christians have no militia to protect them. Many are clustered in villages in the Nineveh plains north of Mosul , where their ancestors lived before the Islamic conquest.

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