A global ecumenical body welcomed "with great hope and deep satisfaction" news that diverse church leaders in Iraq have established a council to speak with a common voice.
"In our view, it is a development that augurs as much for the future of the churches in Iraq as it does for Iraq as a nation," said the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, in a statement Thursday.
The Council of Christian Church Leaders of Iraq includes all patriarchs, archbishops, bishops and heads of churches in the country from the 14 Christian communities registered in Iraq since 1982. These Christian communities include the Catholic, Eastern and Oriental Orthodox as well as Protestant traditions.
The new council says its aim is "to unite the opinion, position and decision of the Churches in Iraq on issues" related to churches and state with the hope of "upholding and strengthening the Christian presence, promoting cooperation and joint action without interfering in private matters of the churches or their related entities."
Iraqi church leaders gathered at the monastery of St. Garabed of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Baghdad on Feb. 9 to launch the council. The leaders say they intend to dialogue and form relations with Muslim brothers and sisters and to promote acceptance of each other's religion. The council also intends to address the issue of Christian education and renew religious curriculum in public schools in partnership with concerned government institutions.
"Iraqi Christians have never viewed themselves as simply a minority community who stand for their own interest," Tveit noted. "They have always shown their deep rootedness in the history and civilization of Iraq."
Chaldo-Assyrians, who make up most of Iraq's Christian population, often point out that they are Iraq's indigenous people, tracing their history back to Babylonian times. Yet despite their ancient heritage, Christians in recent years have increasingly become the target of violence.
This week, four Christians, including two students, were killed within four days in the northern Iraq town of Mosul.
The murders have caused more Iraqi Christian families to plan on leaving the country.
"It is very difficult to live in this kind of situation," said the Chaldean Archbishop Emil Shimoun Nona of Mosul, on Thursday, to the British branch of the charity Aid to the Church in Need.
"It is panic, panic always," he added. "The Christians don't know what will happen to them. It is the same everywhere – in the office, at school or even at home. They don't know if somebody is going to kill them."
He believes what they are seeing with the violence is an effort to force Christians to leave Mosul.
Nona was installed in January, replacing Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, who was kidnapped and then found dead in March 2008.
Rahho was the second most senior Catholic cleric in Iraq and his death sparked outcry from the small Christian community over the increased violent acts against it.
Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq because of the persecution. It is estimated that Christians account for nearly half of all refugees leaving the country, although they make up less than three percent of the country's population.
There are only about 600,000 Iraqi Christians remaining in the country, down from 1.2 million before 2003.