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As U.S. troops withdraw, Iraqi Catholics targeted

Analysts say Islamic militants are trying to drive out last of nation’s Christian minority

ICC Note

Analysts say Islamic militants are trying to drive out last of nation’s Christian minority

07/23/2009 Iraq (OSV Newsweekly)-That Sunday morning was hot at St. Mary church in eastern Baghdad , Iraq . Bishop Shlemon Warduni, an auxiliary of the Chaldean Church , celebrated Mass and then led his parishioners in prayers for peace and security. After seeing some of the families off, he returned to his office in the church. Moments later a bomb exploded just outside the thick walls that form the church’s courtyard.

The July 12 blast was so strong that it was heard across Baghdad . Bishop Warduni rushed out of St. Mary’s to a scene of smoke, dust and blood. The explosion had killed two of his parishioners and wounded 25. The bomb, which had been hidden in a car parked across the street from the church, left a crater in the asphalt more than 10 feet wide and several feet deep.

“People are very angry, very upset,” Bishop Warduni told Our Sunday Visitor. “These attacks are against all Iraqis, not only Christians.”

‘Get out or…’

That might be true, but since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Islamic terrorists in Iraq have ruthlessly targeted Iraq ‘s Christians. Terrorists have singled out and attacked Iraqi Christians, accusing them of being allies of the American “invaders,” since many Americans are Christian. The latest U.N. statistics show that although Iraq ‘s Christians make up less than 5 percent of the nation’s population, they account for more than 40 percent of Iraq ‘s refugees. Prior to 2003 there were some 1.5 million Iraqi Christians. Now, 1 in 3 has either been killed, fled Iraq or is an internally displaced person — refugees in their own country.

“The group that did this has two messages: one for the international community and one for Iraq ‘s Christians,” Slewa told OSV. “In the case of the international community they are saying, ‘we are still here and the security system in Iraq is still bad.’ For us Christians, these bombs are meant to keep us thinking about emigration — leaving Iraq .”

Not widely reported is that most of the bombs used in these attacks were small devices concealed in boxes or paper bags. “These bombs were made to make noise and send a message to Iraqi Christians: get out or be killed,” said Slewa.

Raw reminder

Small or not, these attacks are a raw reminder that life for Christians in Iraq is uncertain, brutish and getting worst. As of June 30, in accordance with a U.S.-Iraqi security agreement, all U.S. troops have pulled out of Iraq ‘s urban areas. All remaining U.S. forces, except for a small group of advisers, are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

“These attacks are not new, but they have intensified around the U.S. troop withdrawal,” said Slewa. “There is certainly a direct relation between the June 30 troop withdrawal and these bombings.”

“Unfortunately, [that] is correct — these attacks are not new,” said Michael Youash, project director for the Iraq Sustainability Democracy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “In fact, our sources received warning of these attacks by way of text messages, days before they occurred. These sources immediately passed the information on to U.S. forces, who, we were assured, notified the Iraqi military. There was clearly a failure to take preventative steps by Iraqi and U.S. forces.”

If Iraqi security forces did receive advance warning of the attacks and were unable to prevent them, this, too, would not be new. “For the past six years, the Christians of Iraq have been the target of a sophisticated and a systematic plan of religious and ethnic cleaning,” said Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Chicago-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council (ICRC). The ICRC exists to educate Americans about the violence directed at Christians in Iraq .

“Since 2003,” Taimoorazy said, “Iraqi Christians have suffered church bombings, the murder of their clergymen, and even beheadings of men and women who refuse to betray their Christian faith.”

“It is imperative to mention that atrocities committed against Iraq ‘s Christians are not the main reason for their flight from their country,” she said. “These Christians — Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs — are also being stripped of basic rights in their own land. They are being denied such basic rights as access to employment and housing, not to mention fair representation in Iraq ‘s new government.”

‘Myth of equality’

As U.S. forces continue to leave Iraq , the future for Iraqi Christians will be found in the emerging U.S. and Iraqi policies concerning religious minorities. Until very recently those policies had not gotten off to a promising start. “The U.S. State Department has no policy that recognizes the unique and precarious situation for Iraq ‘s Christian population,” Youash said.

Christians in Iraq

Most Iraqi Christians are ethnically Assyrian, descendants of the Assyrian Empire, whose capital was Nineveh , where God sent Jonah to preach repentance. Assyrians have been in the Middle East for over 6,000 years.

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