Will US Troop Withdrawal Put Iraqi Christians at Greater Risk?

As the United States withdraws troops from Iraq after nine years of conflict, many fear the vulnerable Christian community in the country will be left unprotected.

Since the war began in March 2003, Iraq erupted into sectarian violence, leaving U.S. troops in charge of trying to contain what threatened to become a civil war. The situation turned out to be catastrophic for the Christian community, as violence against Christians soared, including a  an attack on a church in Baghdad in Oct. 2010, in which over 50 congregants were killed.

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. Many chose to leave the country.

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According to a recent study by Minority Rights Group International, only 500,000 Christians currently remain in Iraq, as compared to between 800,000 and 1.4 million in 2003.

Some observers fear that a withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country could lead to a rise in persecution against Iraqi Christians.

While President Barack Obama was meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday, the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition appealed to the commander in chief to raise the issue of Christians’ safety. Unless the Obama administration confronts this “crushing of human rights and religious freedom” in Iraq, the public expression of Christianity will be exterminated in that country, Mahoney predicted in a statement released Monday.

“It is a tragedy that America's involvement in Iraq did not bring liberation for Christians but brutality, oppression and possible extinction,” Mahoney said. “How can we pull out of Iraq without a clear plan for protecting Christians and other religious minorities? America must realize that this horrible extermination of Christians is directly related to our failure in ensuring their safety.”

According to the Christian Defense Coalition’s statistics, there are currently only less than 400,000 Christians remaining in Iraq. In comparison to 15 years ago, there were 1.6 million, the organization estimated.

In late November, a local church leader painted the picture of hardship that a Christian worshiper faces in Iraq.

“Living in Iraq means living in fear,” Fr. Amir Jaje, Superior of the Dominican Order in Baghdad and Vicar to the Arab World  told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “There’s no feeling safe and during the last two or three weeks the situation has got worse, because of tensions among political parties.”

Jaje also said that police stationed outside churches have failed to give the faithful a feeling of safety, as it is believed extremists have infiltrated congregations. The anxiety in Baghdad has also been on the rise recently because of the anniversary of the deadly church attack last year, the minister reportedly said.

Meanwhile, Canon Andrew White, minister of St George’s Church in Baghdad, said in a statement recently that he does not see the withdrawal of troops as something that would increase the peril the Christian community is facing, because the troops were not of much help to begin with. White, also known as the “Vicar of Baghdad,” has been ministering in the Middle East – including Israel and Palestinian areas – since 2002. He claims the church members were not being protected by the U.S. army, but by Iraqi forces.

“We don’t see American soldiers on the streets of Baghdad; the soldiers at the checkpoints are Iraqis,” White said in a statement emailed to The Christian Post Friday. “The Americans are in their embassy in the International Zone or on their base.”

But the congregants are concerned about their safety, as always, White wrote, adding that having U.S. soldiers up the road in Camp Victory in Baghdad did not help the Christians massacred in the church last year.

“The only reason things might get worse when the Americans have gone [is] if some group decides to make a political statement,” the vicar said.. “But there are already groups causing violence to make political statements, including the statement that the Americans must leave now.”

St George’s ministers to over 550 local Iraqi Christian families and operates well outside the safety of the International Green Zone, according to the church website. Most of the congregation are women and children – widows and orphans – since most of the men have been killed in the years of violence.

As the Christmas season approaches, some observers have expressed fear that the lack of troops, who will be gone from Iraq by Dec. 31, will make assaults, already common around Christmas across the Muslim world, even more probable.

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