Baghdad Church Head: Iraqi Christian Plight Worse than Reported

WASHINGTON – The situation of Iraqi Christians is worse than being reported and nothing is being done to help, testified the pastor of one of the largest churches in Iraq Wednesday before the U.S. government's special religious freedom commission.

"The situation is more than desperate," said the Rev. Canon Andrew White, vicar of the 1,300-membered St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad. "The Coalition has failed the Christians. We have done nothing to support the Christian community or the increase Christian suffering."

White provided a first-hand, in-depth witness of the current situation of Christians on the grounds in Iraq to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom – a bipartisan government task force responsible for monitoring religious freedom in the world.

The USCIRF hearing was the first of its kind, and resulted after the Iraq Study Group and representatives of Iraq's minority communities urged the commission to provide a platform where testimonies of Iraq's religious minorities could be heard.

White, who noted that his church members are not only Anglicans but Christians from many different denominations, reported that within only the last month, 36 of his own congregants have been kidnapped. To date, only one has been returned after the church gathered the money for his ransom.

Moreover, White and other Iraqi witnesses spoke about the situation in Dora, Iraq, where over the past few months all Christians have been forced to abandon their homes and flee after receiving systematic death threats. In addition, almost all the churches in Dora have been bombed and burnt.

"Violence against all Christians are increasing all the time," emphasized White.

He explained the aggression against Christians resulted from the fact that they are not Muslim, are considered to belong to a Western religion, and are seen as being close to or even part of the Coalition.

"One of the major problems faced by the Christians is their link to the Coalition," said White.

Yet so far, "the Coalition has failed the Christians."

"Nothing has been provided as far as I have known," said the Anglican priest. "None of the Christians I have seen has ever received any help. We have huge needs."

White called on the international community to provide Christians and other minorities security, food and water, and the ability to worship.

"I love my people. I love my church. It is the best church I have ever had," he said. "I'm the only non-Iraqi there. It causes me great sorrow to see the international community – even my own nation (England) and yours – has not really done anything to help these people.

"So far no government has helped," White continued. "No government has understood their needs. There has been a fundamental lack of understanding of the immediate nature of the conflict that we are now facing. So the Christians and other minorities need provision and engagement."

Despite his criticism of the Coalition and international governments, White emphasized that he supports the Iraq war and believes that an U.S. military pullout now would lead to more bloodshed.

"I agree we needed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. I think the war was right … I'm delighted he (U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus) is there and he is doing an incredible job," said White.

Gen. Petraeus is a regular attendee at White's St. George's Church.

"The fact is we went to war. We actually were partied to enabling a lot of these problems; we can't just leave. I know people might want us to say we should … but they haven't seen them. They are not on the grounds," said White. "If we leave them, if we pull out I dread to think what will happen.

The priest concluded: "It's a dire situation but together we can make a difference and we must make a difference."

USCIRF this year added Iraq to its Watch List of countries requiring close monitoring because of reports of religious freedom violations tolerated by the government. The commission acknowledges reported abuses in Iraq such as assassination of Christian religious leaders, bombing and destruction of churches, and violent threats intended to force Christians from their homes.

"In some areas, ordinary Christians have reportedly stopped participating in public religious services for fear of inviting further violence," said USCIRF chair Michael Cromartie.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated Christians make up nearly half of the refugees fleeing Iraq although they make up only three percent of the country's population.

Over 1.8 million people have been displaced from their homes in Iraq and close to 2 million Iraqis have left since the 2003 U.S.-led offensive.

Others who spoke during the USCIRF hearing included Pasqual Warda, former Iraq Minister of Migration & Displacement and President of the Assyrian Women's Union; Dr. Donny George, former chairman of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and former director of the Iraqi National Museum; and Michael Youash, project director of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project.

Rep. Anna Eschoo (D-Calif.), the only Assyrian Christian in Congress, also spoke at the beginning of the hearing to share her concern and support for the issue of Iraqi minorities.

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