Iraq's Endangered Christians Promised Protection

Iraq's prime minister vowed Saturday to protect and support the country's rapidly diminishing Christian population which has been fleeing the sectarian violence in the country.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki affirmed the Iraqi government's determination to defend the endangered Christian community after receiving the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, Emmanuel III Delly, according to The Associated Press.

Delly, who is the head of the Chaldean Church in Iraq and spiritual leader to all Chaldeans, has pressed for more protection of Iraq's Christian minority from violence.

In response, Iraq's prime minister pledged to stop the outflow of Iraqi Christians.

The Christian population in Iraq, composed mostly of Chaldeans, is only about 600,000, down from 1.2 million before the 2003 U.S.-led offensive. And while Christians now account for only about three percent of Iraq's population, they make up nearly half of all the refugees fleeing the country, according to estimates by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nearly 2.2 million Iraqis have left the country.

"While all Iraqis are threatened by violence, the non-Muslim minorities face particularized forms of harassment and abuse; what is more, these groups appear to suffer a degree of violent attacks and other human rights abuses disproportionate to their numbers," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month.

USCIRF – the bipartisan U.S. government task force responsible for monitoring religious freedom in the world – has warned of a possible "extinction" of certain Iraqi Christian communities, such as the Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, if the U.S. government does not intervene and protect Iraq's Christians.

"The situation for the non-Muslim minority communities in Iraq has gone beyond critical," USCIRF emphasized.

A key concern is that Christians have been increasingly the target of sectarian violence by both Sunni and Shiite Islamists, as well as criminal gangs. An alarmingly high number of Iraqi Christians are kidnapped for ransom because of false perception that Christians have money – as some own shops or have relatives abroad.

Also, Islamic extremists label Iraqi Christians as "crusaders" loyal to U.S. troops and thus target them, according to AP.

"[F]requent sectarian violence, including attacks on religious places of worship, hampered the ability to practice religion freely," stated the annual International Religious Freedom Report released by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in September.

"Christians also reported that Islamic extremists warned Christians living in Baghdad's Dora district to convert, leave, or be killed," it further noted.

Persecutions include church bombs, death threats, and actual murders.

"Religious liberty is deeply rooted in our principles and history as a nation, and it is our belief in this universal human right that leads us into the world to support all who want to secure this right in this lives and in their countries," Rice said at the release of the International Religious Freedom Report.

"Freedom of religion is also integral to our efforts to combat the ideology of hatred and religious intolerance that fuels global terrorism," she added.

The largest Christian communities are located in the north in Mosul, Erbil, Dohuk, and Kirkuk.

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