Cardinal: Iraqi Christians Shouldn't Get Special Visa Privilege

Iraqi Christians seeking to resettle in the West should not get special treatment based on religion, said a Roman Catholic cardinal on Monday.

Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Oriental Churches, says Western countries should issue visas based on needs and not because the applicant is Christian or Muslim, according to Reuters.

"There is a new E.U. solution to take in many Iraqi refugees, Christians and otherwise," Sandri said to reporters during a visit to Paris. "We will continue to support such efforts."

Last month, the European Union said no specific steps should be taken to help Iraqi Christians seeking refuge, but that a meeting next month would focus on helping all the country's minorities.

Sandri's statement opposes that of France and Germany, which have both taken steps to give Iraqi Christians priority when granting visas.

In March, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced that his country would take in nearly 500 Iraqi Christians because "no one" was taking them, according to The Associated Press.

"Their (Iraqi Christian) persecution continues, daily, and the fact that, admittedly, they aren't the only people being persecuted – certainly not in Baghdad or elsewhere in the country – doesn't make it acceptable," he stated, according to the Embassy of France in the United Kingdom.

"They are especially targeted. I realized this and am going to try, at my small scale, and remedy it."

Likewise, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schauble has spoken of specific help, including encouraging Turkey to provide shelter for more Iraqi Muslim refugees and Germany for more of the country's Christian refugees.

But Iraqi-American Christian Michael Youash, who is project director of Washington-based Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, believes that while there are some cases where families need to be resettled in other countries, the most humanitarian solution is to boost efforts so Christians can live safely in Iraq.

"We hope that when messages are sent about resettlement that there is almost a double or triple effort towards solutions inside Iraq, because actually, in the long term, that is the most humanitarian response," Youash said earlier.

"The reality is that millions of vulnerable people are not going to be relocated. So where can we help them? It is inside Iraq," he said. "So while any effort to help truly, truly, truly decimated, hurt families to resettle is welcomed, we think it should be matched by an almost double, triple, or quadruple effort inside Iraq where the majority of the vulnerable people still are."

Christians have always been a minority in Iraq, making up only about three percent of the country's population before the U.S.-led offensive in 2003. But their numbers plummeted thereafter as Iraqi Christians were more frequently targeted by Islamic extremists who falsely associate them with the West and U.S. forces, believing that since America and the West are "Christian" nations then Iraqi Christians must be their allies.

Prior to 2003 there were some 1.2 million Christians in Iraq, now there are only about 600,000 remaining in the country.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has sounded the alarm on the grossly disproportionate percentage of Christians fleeing the country. According to the UNHCR, nearly half of the refugees exiting Iraq are Christians, even though this religious group composes less than five percent of the country's population.

In recent months, the persecution of Christians has increased, including the murder of Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul Paulus Faraj Rahho in February and a series of seven church attacks in January.

"The situation continues to grow grimmer for the targeted minority Christian community in Iraq," commented Carl Moeller, president/CEO of Open Doors USA, in a statement prepared for the anniversary of the Iraq war. "Pray that 2008 will be the year when the violence will decrease and Christians will not be killed and kidnapped simply for their belief in Christ."