Watch Group Presses U.S. Action for Iraqi Minorities

A U.S. religious freedom monitoring body said on Tuesday that religious minority groups in Iraq are facing "ongoing severe abuses" and urges the U.S. government to take stronger action to address the situation.

In its report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom cited "threats and intimidation" against Chaldo-Assyrians and other Christians, as well as Sabean-Mandaeans and Yazidis.

"Iraq's non-Muslim religious minorities – particularly Christians, Mandaeans and Yazidis – have suffered religiously-based attacks and other abuses, and have fled the country, at rates far disproportionate to their numbers, seriously threatening these communities' continuous existence in Iraq," the report stated.

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It described Iraq as one of the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities and accused the country's leaders of tolerating attacks on Christians and other groups, according to Reuters.

Dr. Carl Moeller, president of Open Doors USA, told The Christian Post, "[While] it has been true that there has been some reduction in violence in Iraq, the conditions for Christians remain incredibly desperate."

Noting that he visited Iraq earlier this year, Moeller recalled thousands of Christians living in make-shift villages in rural areas far from their homes in Baghdad and Mosul.

The ministry leader explained that part of the reduction of violence in Iraq is essentially attributed to there being no one left to attack as dominant groups take control of a region, forcing other factions, including Christians, to leave.

"But unfortunately there is no one protecting the Christian community in any part of Iraq," Moeller lamented.

The Commission's report highlights that because religious minorities lack militia or tribal structures, they are essentially defenseless and "easy prey for extremists and criminals," according to CNN.

USCIRF wants the U.S. State Department to designate Iraq as a "country of particular concern" – the blacklist for religious freedom violators. A CPC status would allow the U.S. government to deny state visits, publicly condemn the government, and even enact sanctions.

The Commission's spokeswoman, Judith Ingram, said the CPC label would attract attention to religious freedom abuses and "encourage a robust policy response."

Moeller in his interview had also noted that western foreign policy overlooked the Christian community, which is seen as a "green light" by the factions in Iraq to further marginalize Iraqi Christians.

"It is truly tragedy that this community has been overlooked," he said, noting that Iraqi Christians trace their roots to the land now known as modern-day Iraq back to 2,000 years ago.

"That said, as western forces leave Iraq the only reality is other Middle East powers – Iran and other Sunni-backed organizations as well as Iranian Shia-backed organizations – will fill the vacuum, neither of which are sympathetic to the Christian community," he said.

"It is most likely the Christian church will suffer greatly when Western forces pull out."

More than 15,000 Iraqi Christians were driven out of Mosul in October by threats and violence. Days prior to the mass exodus, six Christians had been killed within less than a week in Mosul, which caused widespread fear in the city's Christian community.

The series of murders in the northern city in October followed the murder of a much beloved and high-ranking Catholic cleric in March. The body of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, the second most senior Catholic cleric in Iraq, was found by a roadside in Mosul two weeks after he was kidnapped by gunmen.

Following the death of Rahho, Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako – the most senior Catholic cleric in Iraq - warned that Christians in the country face "liquidation" if the Iraqi government and the U.S. military do not step up protection for the country's religious minorities.

Since the U.S.-led Iraq war in 2003, more than 200 Christians have been killed, dozens of churches were bombed, and more than half the Iraqi Christian population have left the country, according to Archbishop Sako.

USCIRF hopes that the incoming administration under Barack Obama will ensure "safe and fair provincial elections" and "security and safety for all Iraqis." It calls on the Obama administration to make prevention of religious abuse a "high priority" and to urge authorities in the Kurdish region to support "minority rights." USCIRF also wants the U.S. government to address Iraq's displaced persons and refugee problem.

Christians make up less than three percent of Iraq's population, but account for nearly half of all refugees leaving the country, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The Iraqi Christian population has plummeted from 1.2 million before 2003, to now less than 600,000.

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