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Media Contact: Todd Daniels, Regional Manager for the Middle East RM-ME@persecution.org
Iraq's Persecuted and Shrinking Church
Are there signs of life following Iraqi Elections?
International Christian Concern
The votes may be in for the Iraqi parliamentary elections, but the verdict is still out on the much-needed religious freedom in Iraq. As violence increases in the country, its Christian population continues to flee. In the past decade, more than a million Iraqi Christians have left the country. A broad coalition of nearly 300 religious leaders and activists, led by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA) have expressed their solidarity with Middle East Christians.
With the sustained hostility towards Christians in Iraq, this election comes at a very important time in Iraq's history and a crucial moment for the Iraqi Church.
Unending Religiously Motivated Attacks
Iraq continues to remain a country in turmoil. In 2013, the death toll reached its highest level in five years, totaling nearly 8,000 civilians and over 1,000 members of the security forces, according to the UN. Much of the conflict has occurred along religious lines, as the country's Sunni and Shi'a groups battle for power and the Christians and other faith groups are left vulnerable as the targets for extremists on both sides.
The political unrest gives cause for concern regarding the government's ability to stop the attacks on religious minorities. "In the past year, the government failed to stem egregious and increasing violence by non-state actors against Iraqi civilians, including attacks targeting religious pilgrims and worshippers, religious sites, and leaders, as well as individuals for their actual or assumed religious identity," the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in its 2014 report on Iraq.
As instability grows, the violence towards Christians continues to remain high. On Christmas Day, twin blasts in the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, one outside the St. John Catholic Church and the other in a predominately Christian market, claimed more than 35 lives, as ICC reported in December. Christians have had their homes seized by gangs with no recourse or support from the government to see the property returned. "We've received dozens of such cases" said William Warda of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization. "Most of them are afraid of submitting complaints to the government, because they do not believe they can protect themselves if they file a lawsuit - they are fearful of being kidnapped."
During more than a decade of political turmoil in Iraq, Christians have been targeted and killed in their churches, school buses, neighborhoods, and shops. Canon Andrew White, vicar of the Anglican St. George's Church in Baghdad, has said "all the churches are targets."
These realities have Iraq listed as the fourth worst country in terms of Christian persecution according to the 2014 World Watch List. USCIRF has again recommend Iraq as a "Country of Particular Concern" for its lack of religious freedom. "The government has proven unable to stop religiously-motivated attacks and bring perpetrators to justice," its report stated.
Steps Forward with the New Government
Iraq's political situation has had a direct impact on the violence in the country. "The future and political stability together in Iraq continue to deteriorate and remains ominous," Joseph Kassab, the president of Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute (ICAE), told International Christian Concern (ICC) Kassab. "We need leaders who care about Iraqis before themselves, their parties, and their interests," Kassab continued.
The party headed by current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, received the most votes in the election, but now needs to bring together a coalition to establish a government. It is a task that could prove very challenging, as Reuters explains. Iraq is facing the challenge of trying to unite a population split along both ethnic and religious lines, and in the midst of it all, has witnessed the near extinction of Christians from the region.
Even among the Kurdish population in the north, what had been viewed as a safe haven for Christians is now in flux with talks of a referendum "on independence and separation from Iraq," writes Michael Knights. If a split were to happen, we could actually witness the extinction of the Christian demographic in Iraq, as the northern Kurdish providences hold the majority of the remaining Iraqi Christian population, just a fraction of what it was a decade earlier.
Will the Church Go Silent?
Iraq's Christians feel they have been left helpless and unprotected amidst the persecution. As Baghdad's Catholic Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako recently cried out: "We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?"
Canon White shared a similar story with a gathering of political and religious leaders, hosted by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) in Washington, D.C., who were gathered to pledge solidarity with the Christians of Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. "I walked into church the other day and my young people said to me, 'Has the world forgotten us? Has the world forgotten that we are there?'"
With nearly 300 religious leaders having signed the Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action, Canon White can tell his young people that "no, the world has not forgotten that they are there."
Though so many Christians have left, Joseph Kassab pointed to the unity that has come out of this persecution in the Iraqi church. "Iraqi Christians became united under the cross," he told ICC.
The violence against religious minorities and Christian persecution is a vital issue that the Iraqi government must work to address. As ICC continues to press for support and recognition on this issue, it is urgent to keep our brothers and sisters in Christ in prayer through this time of persecution. We must let them know the church has not forgotten them.
For interviews, contact Todd Daniels, Regional Manager for the Middle East: RM-ME@persecution.org
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