Iraq is holding its first national election in decades this weekend to decide the future of the war-torn nation and the lives of its minority Christian population. Although many of the nations Christians have fled as a result of increasing violence, for those that remain, tomorrows election could likely spell the difference between freedom and oppression, persecution watchdog groups say.
"The great fear Christians have is that an extreme Muslim leader will be elected, Open Doors USAs president/CEO Dr. Carl Moeller, told Crosswalk.com during a recent interview. Then what position will the Christians be in?"
"We really want to mobilize the U.S. to pray," said Moeller. "That's what our brothers and sisters in Iraq are most asking us to do. We can't vote in the Iraqi elections. And really, there's no political process or solution that will be viable in the long run."
However, at a time when the presence of Iraqs Christian minority could be significant in helping democracy take hold of the war-torn nation, news agencies and persecution watchdogs say many of Iraqs beleaguered Christians fled their country because of attacks and threats.
Since the recent wave of church bombings began last year in August, as many as 40,000 of Iraq's 700,000 Christians have fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria, and the situation has gotten worse, according to Nina Shea, director of Freedom Houses Center for Religious Freedom and vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Last month, gunmen attacked two churches in the northwestern Iraqi city of Mosul, forcing people to leave and setting off explosions inside the buildings that caused damage but no personal harm. In November, masked men detonated a bomb near an Orthodox Church in southern Baghdad, killing three people and wounding 34. In October, five Baghdad churches were attacked, causing damage but no casualties. And in August, similar attacks killed at least 10 and wounded nearly 50 Iraqi Christians.
"Wouldn't you flee if your church was being bombed and you risked your life just by going to church on Sunday morning?" Moeller asked. "Mentally, it's almost impossible to think about. Yet, we know that God has called out a remnant of believers in Iraq to remain, and to remain strong. The Bible says in Revelation 3:2, 'Wake up and strengthen what remains and is about to die.' That's the Christian's mission."
According to Crosswalk, local sources have told Open Doors that Christians do plan to vote. "They have to," Moeller adds. "They have to have their voice heard. It's the only chance they have politically to have any representation in a new Iraqi government."
Out of a population of about 26 million, Christians constitute only three percent for a total number of about 700,000 people in Iraq. They belong to different denominations and rites such as the Assyrian-Nestorian Church, the Syriac-Catholic Church, the Syriac-Orthodox Church; the Armenian Orthodox Church has some members, the Catholic Church about 260,000, 70% following the Chaldean rite.
The largest Christian communities are found in Baghdad and some northern cities like Kirkuk, Irbil, and Mosul (the ancient Ninevah).
Therefore, according to Moeller, it's crucial for Iraqi Christians to make their voices heard"whatever amount of voice they have remaining politically."
They will vote and support candidates promoting religious pluralism, added the Open Doors head. "But those are distinctively minority voices, unfortunately."
Last month, Italy-based AsiaNews reported that eight of the some 70 parties that had registered to take part in the Jan. 30 elections have been identified to be Christian parties. However, Iraq's registered Christian parties have reported struggles in getting their message across as they lacked the funds to reach out to the public through the media, unlike Governmental parties that are able to because they have greater financial resources.
AsiaNews said that the parties hope to be supported by Iraqi expatriates who will join in the voting in 14 countries outside Iraq. According to the news agency, about half a million participants are expected to vote out of the 800,000 eligible voters of more than three million Iraqi expatriates living in Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, Holland, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Sweden, Turkey, the UK, the UAE, and the USA.
Aside from voting, Moeller told Crosswalk that Christians in the U.S. can help by mobilizing support for Christian candidates in Iraq "that are standing for real freedom, real pluralism, real religious tolerance in the new Iraqi government."
As the U.S. will continue to have a great deal of influence for quite some time, Moeller says, We need to keep underscoring that the rights and liberties of the Iraqi Christians must be protected."
And even more so, Moeller adds, "We need to pray that those Christians facing the daily pressure of bombing and violence will not flee but will stay strongstay as a force for peacesalt and light in the Iraqi society."