Four members of the French nongovernmental organization Christians of the Middle East, a charity that seeks to "help Christian communities remain (in the region) and rebuild," have disappeared while working in Baghdad.
The four members of the charity went missing near the French embassy in the Iraqi capital on Jan. 20, Christians of the Middle East director Benjamin Blanchard said at a news conference in Paris on Friday, France 24 reports.
Three of the disappeared workers are French and one is Iraqi, he added. There have been no ransom demands, and the charity has asked that their identities remain concealed for security reasons.
The charity has been working with persecuted Christians in Iraq since 2014 when Islamic State jihadists seized the predominantly Christian province of Mosul, displacing tens of thousands. The group is also active in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil, where many Christians sought refuge.
The missing workers were in Baghdad "to renew their visas and register the association with Iraqi authorities," Blanchard said, and were due to inspect the group's activities in the city, including the opening of a new school.
They left their hotel by car for a meeting "which posed no problem," Blanchard said, describing the men as "experienced staff members who have been working with us for years" and who had "perfect knowledge of conflict zones.”
On Twitter, Christians of the Middle East shared photos of people from around the world who've gathered to pray for the missing workers’ safe recovery.
“Today, we will offer to God Our Father, a Special Mass, for the safety and the return of Our Beloved Four Brothers. We gather all of our hearts, minds, souls, and prayers for ONE INTENTION: THE SAFE RETURN TO OUR FOUR BELOVED BROTHERS,” reads one update.
The secular news outlet AFP, which is partly funded by the French government, claims that the Christian organization is "fiercely critical of Islam, portraying it as a threat to Christianity in the Middle East."
The humanitarian aid workers' disappearance comes as kidnappings have become commonplace in Iraq, according to persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern. The group reports that America's military presence in Iraq has also become increasingly unwelcome following a U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian Quds Force commander, alongside Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of Iran-backed militias in Iraq known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, and five others in Baghdad on Jan. 3.
Soleimani, was a known terrorist who was responsible for numerous terrorist attacks worldwide as well as the killing of Iranians, Iraqis, U.S. allies and the killing over 600 U.S. soldiers and wounding of thousands of others over two decades. Other countries had tried to kill Soleimani before President Trump authorized the operation.
Iran has infiltrated the Iraqi government and military in an attempt to push out the U.S. and other foreign influences.
"The extent to which Iran has managed to infiltrate Iraq’s political and military establishment was revealed in November 2019, when 700 pages containing secret intelligence cables were leaked to two U.S. media organizations. They describe a carefully conceived plan, going back to 2014, for Iran’s ministry of information and security, along with the Quds Force, to expand Iran’s influence inside Iraq, and to identify and run sources at the most senior levels of government. The aim was to keep the country pliant and aligned to Iran’s objectives," The Jerusalem Post reports.
"The leaked cables reveal that Iranian intelligence officers co-opted much of the Iraqi government’s cabinet, infiltrated its military leadership, and even tapped into a network of sources once run by the CIA," the Post adds.
Along with exerting it's influence in the Iraqi government and military, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, such as an armed group known as Kataib Hezbollah, have also been carrying out terrorist attacks, such as a Dec. 27 rocket attack on an Iraqi military base where U.S. troops are stationed.
“As a result, all foreigners working in Iraq are at a grave security risk," International Christian Concern. notes. “For Christians, the risk is even greater. Following ISIS, Iraqi Christians have come to rely upon foreign aid. For those working in humanitarian aid, and for those receiving, the environment is an increasingly dangerous one.”
Earlier this month, Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad, Louis Raphael Sako, called on Christians and Muslims in Iraq to pray for their leaders.
In his homily, Sako described the situation in Iraq and the Middle East as a “volcano about to erupt” and urged Christians to pray and push to avoid further escalation of the ongoing tensions, noting that innocent people will be the fuel for such “fire.”
Open Doors USA ranks Iraq at No. 15 on its World Watch List of 50 countries where it's most difficult to be a Christian. According to the group, although the Islamic State terror group has lost territory in Iraq, their ideology remains and has influenced society. Many of the militants, it says, “have simply blended back into the general population.”