(Photo: AP Images / Hadi Mizban)
Church leaders from various denominations have urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to work with Iraqi authorities in protecting the persecuted Christian minority.
The National Council of Churches and its partners throughout the world on Monday sent a letter to Clinton and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates expressing concern about "the ongoing situation of violent attacks on minority groups in Iraq."
"Christians in Iraq have suffered more than a dozen violent deaths so far this year," the letter states. "Our concern is now particularly acute because it is possible that tensions will increase as various political forces continue to vie for power following the recent elections."
Iraq held its parliamentary election in March but the formation of a new government has been delayed amid heated disputes over the results.
As politicians continue to wrangle over a new coalition government, church leaders fear the "growing climate of mistrust and animosity" in the aftermath of the elections "will further threaten the fragile Christian community."
In the letter, NCC General Secretary the Rev. Michael Kinnamon and church leaders – including the Rev. Paula Clayton Dempsey of the Alliance of Baptists, Bishop Serapion of the Coptic Orthodox Church in North America, and the Rev. Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – strongly request that Clinton and Gates communicate the concern to the Government of Iraq.
The letter comes days after Christians in northern Iraq erected a statue of Jesus, modeled after Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, amid mounting attacks by extremists.
Bashar Jarjees Habash, coordinator of Christian affairs in the city of Hamdaniya, said the statue of Jesus opening his arms was built to "send a message of peace to everyone to say that we want to live in peace with all," as reported by Agence France-Presse.
"The people of this area have always tried to live in peace with everyone, even those who fight and threaten them," he told AFP.
Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, some 250,000 to 500,000 Christians, or about half the Christian population, have left the country, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees.
Christians have been the target of attacks for years and violence against the shrinking community escalated earlier this year, ahead of the March 7 elections. At least 10 Iraqi Christians were killed by unknown gunmen in Mosul in February.
Hundreds of Iraqi Christians took to the streets that month a number of protests, chanting "Stop the killing of Christians."
In the new appeal this week, church leaders asked U.S. officials to work with Iraqis to not only protect Christians and other minority groups but also encourage the preservation of religious and ethnic diversity in Iraq.