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‘Religicide’ in Iraq

Fatal attacks trigger exodus of Christians from major cities.

ICC Note:

Christianity Today reports in depth on the suffering of Iraqi Christians which has resulted in more than half of the Christian population fleeing the country. As refugees, Christians often cannot find work and struggle to survive.

By Dale Gavlak

2/16/2011 Iraq (Christianity Today) – A ringing doorbell at the Baghdad home of an elderly Christian couple seemed innocent enough five days after Christmas. But when Fawzi Rahim, 76, and wife Janet Mekha, 78, opened their front door, a bomb exploded and took their lives.

The suspected militant attack was one of several on December 30, 2010, when 14 other Christians in Baghdad were seriously injured in their homes. The violence followed the October 31 attack on a Baghdad Syriac Catholic cathedral that killed 68 people, and a declaration by the Islamic State of Iraq, a terrorist group, that it was waging war on Christians.

Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, labeled the attacks a “ruthless cleansing campaign by Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish militants.” U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner called on the government of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to swiftly “apprehend the terrorists behind these acts.”

Departures Quicken

The United Nations agency for refugees in Iraq has recorded a significant increase in the number of Christians fleeing Baghdad and Mosul and heading for the northern Kurdistan Regional Government region and the northwestern Nineveh region. By the end of December 2010, more than 1,000 people had recently left these cities.

“The ‘religicide’ of Christians holds disturbing parallels to a previous effort to eliminate Iraqi Jews in 1948,” said Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller. “Many Jews fled and today virtually nothing remains of the once-vibrant community. People of all faiths must unite to prevent this from happening again. We must fight for freedom of religion for all imperiled faith groups in Iraq.”

Despite talk of a dramatic decline in violence in Iraq after the U.S. poured in more troops in 2007 to quell civil war, Christians say their situation has not improved. Recent events support their claim.

Militants have kept up savage assaults with scores of roadside bombings and mortar attacks following a brutal massacre inside Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in late October.

Three days after the massacre, Uday Hikmat and his parents packed and left Iraq for Amman, the capital of Jordan. “We did not want to wait our turn to die,” said the 33-year-old. They were joined by scores of other Iraqi Christians.

Baghdad and Mosul are the two Iraqi regions where a Christian population has resided since the first century A.D., when, according to tradition, the apostle Thomas introduced the gospel there. Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldean Eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but recognize the pope’s authority. Also present are Assyrian, Roman, and Syrian Catholics; Greek, Syrian, and Armenian Orthodox; and Presbyterians, Anglicans, and many evangelicals.

Unacceptable Choices

The war against Christians began in 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq. The violence has included threats, kidnappings, bombings, murder—and now menacing cell-phone text messages. Militants accuse Iraqi Christians of collaborating with American and other Western troops—dubbed “invaders and occupiers”—despite the fact that the Iraqi Christians have lived in the region since the first century.

According to one church leader who spoke anonymously to Christianity Today, Muslim militants give Iraqi Christians three choices: One, they can pay money as jizya, an ancient tax imposed on non-Muslims. But experience has shown that militants just return for more when Christians pay the tax. Two, they can convert to Islam. Three, they can flee—which they must do within days of the ultimatum. The church leader said, “For people who have spent decades in an area and own a house, it’s not easy for them to go. But if they hesitate, the militants will kill a family member, forcing them to leave.”

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