Persecution of Iraqi Christians Likely to Intensify Amid Christmas Season

Believers still fearful one year after Baghdad church siege that killed 52

The life of Iraqi Christians has not been easy. Since a siege directed against Christians in Baghdad in October 2010 killed 52 people, the situation of the followers of Christ in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation has grown worse.

About 500,000 Christians remain in Iraq, down from an estimated 800,000 to 1.4 million in 2003, according to a report by Minority Rights Group International, a research body. Persecution makes the Christian community smaller each year, with churches as well as households being targeted and causing worshippers to flee.

The Christmas holiday season has rarely been a happy one for Christians in the Middle East, where they are often not allowed to raise church buildings and house churches often experience raids and harassment. Experts on the region say the Christmas season is a particularly dangerous period for the Christian minority, when numerous acts of violence and vandalism take place.

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The most recent of such attacks in Iraq occured on Dec. 2, when at least 25 people, many of them Christian, were wounded in an attack carried out by a group of Kurds in the Dohuk Governate in the north of the country.

Dozens of young Kurds – men who reportedly had been "instigated" by Muslim clerics – attacked several small businesses in Zakho, a city that at various times served as a checkpoint on the border with Turkey, according to a CNN report. The news network claims the attackers were targeting "a number of tourist facilities, especially facilities owned by ... Christians and Yazidis." (Yazidis are one of Iraq's smallest religious minorities, their beliefs draw from Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism.)

A local Kurdish leader reportedly said that authorities made "a major effort" to prevent the "acts of sabotage, but they could not." Several police officers were among those wounded.

"I denounce these inhumane and illegal acts, and I call on the people of Kurdistan to respect the national, religious and sectarian coexistence and take it as a basic goal for them to live together peacefully," Massoud Barzani, the president of the Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, told CNN at the time.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the situation of Christians from Iraq in a Monday feature, calling the public's attention to another factor that is stirring the situation in the region – the democratic uprisings spreading across the Middle East.

“With the Arab Spring now bringing political turbulence to many other countries in the region, Christians throughout the Middle East are worried that what happened in Iraq may be a harbinger of misfortune to come in their own communities. While many remain supporters of the uprisings, others fear that the toppling of their autocratic rulers could uncork sectarian violence against Christians and other minority groups in their own nations," the WSJ's Sam Dagher wrote.

Such violence already took place in Egypt. Tensions between Coptic Christians and Muslims have escalated since the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak after the Arab Spring uprisings. Mubarak was an open protector of Christians, and after the Jan. 25 revolution, several radical Islamic groups gained political power.

On Oct. 26, Coptic Christians were killed in Cairo, after Egypt's military and police sought to quell peaceful protests by members of the country's largest Christian denomination, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Currently, the Egyptian diaspora await fearfully what future the newly-minted government will bring.

In Iraq, the U.S. invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought sectarian violence that shook all Iraqis, including Muslim Shiites and Sunnis, according to the WSJ. But it has been catastrophic for the "nation's fragile Christian communities."

Iraqi Christians are caught amidst political brawls between the majority Shiite Muslims, the Sunni Muslims and the Kurds (in the north) who are predominantly Muslim, experts say.

At least 54 Iraqi churches have been bombed and at least 905 Christians killed in various acts of violence since the U.S. invasion toppled Hussein in 2003, WSJ reported.

Since 2003, attacks against these minorities by insurgents and religious extremists have driven more than half of them out of the country, according to U.N. statistics.

The persecution has been causing Christians not only to flee, but to conceal their identity. According to Minority Rights Group International, Christian and other religious minority women in Iraq have been forced to wear a head-scarf to protect themselves from attacks.

"Christian women in Kirkuk and Mosul report feeling extremely insecure outside their homes," the organization says in a report.

Archbishop Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church in the northern provinces of Kirkuk and Sulimaniya told the WSJ recently that "Iraq could be emptied of Christians" completely, if the persecution continues with such intensity.

Religious minorities, such as Christians and Yazidis, make up less than 5 percent of Iraq's population, according to the U.N.'s data division, as reported by WSJ.

As Christmas approaches, Iraqi Christians, while marking the birth of Jesus, will likely also recall the grim holiday season many of them experienced last year.

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