Five Years Later, Where are the Christians in Iraq?

It's been exactly five years since President Bush gave the green light for the Iraq war, which, aside from toppling former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, has resulted in the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians from their ancestral homeland.

Bush, during his address Wednesday to mark the anniversary, declared that the war in Iraq must go on, arguing that the removal of Hussein from power was the right decision, according to CNN.

The president also acknowledged that criticisms of the war were "understandable," but maintained that the United States "can and must win."

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"No one would argue that this war has not come at a high cost in lives and treasure, but those costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq," Bush contended.

Nearly 4,000 American troops have died in the Iraq war.

But the conflict has also claimed many other victims, including a disproportionate number of Iraqi Christians.

Christians have always been a minority in Iraq, making up only about three percent of the country's population before the U.S.-led offensive in 2003. But their numbers plummeted thereafter, dropping from 1.2 million before the war to about 600,000 currently remaining in the country.

Besides security and economic concerns shared by all Iraqis, Christians face the additional burden of being targeted by extremists who mostly kidnap them in exchange for ransom money. Kidnappers are said to believe that Iraqi Christians have relatives living abroad and can easily request financial help from relatives to meet the ransom demand.

However, other militants attack Christians because they falsely associate them with the West and U.S. forces, believing that since America and the West are "Christian" nations then Iraqi Christians must be their allies.

"The situation continues to grow grimmer for the targeted minority Christian community in Iraq," commented Carl Moeller, president/CEO of Open Doors USA, in a statement prepared for the anniversary of the Iraq war. "Pray that 2008 will be the year when the violence will decrease and Christians will not be killed and kidnapped simply for their belief in Christ."

Open Doors is one of the major providers of Bibles and Christian materials in Iraq. It is also working with displaced Christians in Iraq, Syria and Jordan to address their needs of housing, food, clothing and water.

Nina Shea, a commissioner with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), recently criticized the Bush administration for not acknowledging that Christians and other "defenseless" minorities are persecuted because of their faith.

USCIRF is a bipartisan government agency assigned the task of monitoring religious freedom in the world and giving policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress.

"No policies exist to address their (Christians and minorities) specific needs in Iraq or facilitate their finding refuge abroad," wrote Shea in the National Review earlier this month. "No programs exist to train and support them to police their own villages – more critical than ever now that the military surge has flushed terror northward.

"No checks are in place to ensure that their villages in Nineveh and elsewhere in the north share equitably in U.S. largesse," she continued. "No senior administration official has ever even met to hear the views of their American leaders as a group and forge solutions."

Shea supports the proposal to create an autonomous region in northern Iraq called the Nineveh Plains where Christians and other persecuted minorities can practice their faith, speak and teach their language, and work without fear of persecution.

The Nineveh Plains is the ancestral homeland of Assyrian Christians – the largest Christian group in Iraq – and is the area where thousands of Christians from the cities have resettled to escape persecution.

Other notable attacks on Christians in Iraq include the death of Iraq's second most senior Catholic cleric, whose body was found last week after being kidnapped for two weeks; the bombing of 10 Iraqi churches within a span of two weeks earlier this year; and a fatwa issued last summer in Baghdad's Dora neighborhood that demanded 2,000 Christian families living in the area to convert or be killed.

Intense and relentless persecution of Christians has led to this minority group to make up nearly half of the refugees fleeing Iraq even though they make up only three percent of the population, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"Our Iraqi sisters and brothers in Christ live each day under the threat of violence and death," the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, said in response to the death of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho last week. "All Christians and persons of faith pray for their safety, even as we remind the Iraq government of its urgent responsibility to protect all Iraqis."

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