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Christian refugees from Iraq pack pews in Lebanon

Violence spurs new exodus for minority

ICC Note

“Five years from now there won’t be any Christians left in Iraq . It’s happening quietly but also very quickly,”

By Liz Sly

12/26/2008 Lebanon (Chicago Tribune)-In Iraq, the priests routinely celebrate mass in nearly empty churches—if they dare open their church doors at all.

At the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in this working-class Christian suburb east of Beirut , Rev. Joseph Malkoum preaches to an Iraqi congregation that expands every Sunday, swelled by the ranks of Christians fleeing Iraq .

In recent weeks, he has noticed an increase in the number of new faces crowded into the pews as a surge in violence directed against Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul fuels a fresh wave of refugees.

“There was a period when we felt the numbers were going down, but after the recent troubles in Mosul the movement is picking up again,” said Malkoum, who holds a special mass every Sunday for Iraqi Chaldeans, the denomination to which the majority of Iraqi Christians belongs.

“They’re threatening the Christians so that they’ll be scared and will leave,” said Yohan Hanna Hermes, 59, an Iraqi from Mosul who arrived in Beirut in mid-December and attended mass the next day for the first time since September. “It’s a deliberate campaign to drive the Christians out.”

Iraqis who can afford the plane ticket prefer to go to Lebanon because of its large — 40 percent — Christian population. Others make their way to Jordan or most likely Syria , the main destination for Iraqi refugees.

“Five years from now there won’t be any Christians left in Iraq . It’s happening quietly but also very quickly,” said retired Gen. Michel Kasdano, a researcher and spokesman at the Chaldean Archbishopric.

“From those who are coming, we hear the others are packing and making preparations to leave,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before they all are gone.”

“In all Iraq it’s black, it’s finished for Christians. I can never go back,” he said, crumpling in tears. “We used to have a very good life in Baghdad , and here I am like a beggar in Lebanon . I’ve lost everything.”

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