Christians at mercy of fanatics

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By George Pell
THE death of another Australian soldier in Afghanistan last week reminds us of the deadly struggle that continues there and in Iraq. Neither theatre of war gives any sign of a quick victory.
I support the war in Afghanistan, but I never believed the second Iraq invasion was morally justified.

In fact, we discovered Saddam Hussein did not have illegal chemical and biological weapons and was not supporting international terrorism – the reasons usually given to justify theinvasion.

After the quick military victory ofthe “Coalition of the Willing”, woefully inadequate post-war planning by the US leadership helped provoke terrible violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

In many parts of the country, law and order collapsed.

Press coverage of the Iraq conflict has slowed recently, which probably indicates a decline in the violence between warring Islamic factions and against US forces.

Naturally, we hope that improvement continues (although this is not certain) and we hope the effective authority of the Iraqi government spreads and increases.

But, by any standards, the situation of Christians in Iraq is a true disaster.

Chaldean Christians, many of them Catholic, have been in Iraq since before the fifth century – long before Muslims existed.

Estimates of their numbers before the war vary widely, but there may have been 800,000. Probably at least half have fled.

Under Saddam, Christians were oppressed, but not fiercely. And, unlike the Shi’ites and the Kurds, theywere not the target of extermination programs.

Saddam himself was always viewed with suspicion by Islamic radicals because his tribe had remained Christian for 1000 yearsand had converted to Islamonly 300 years ago.

The worst of times have fallen onChristians as fanatics wage a systematic campaign to terrorise them and drive them from Iraq. The forces of order are unable, and usually unwilling, to defend them.

Paul Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, an active participant in dialogue and aworker for peace, was kidnapped and shot last month.

Ninety per cent of Mosul is outside government control and run by Sunni fundamentalists.

Christians can choose to pay the tax on non-Muslims, flee or remain and risk kidnapping or death.
Nine churches in three cities were bombed in January. Explosions also hit an orphanage and a convent.

Last June, young Iraqi priest Ragheed Gani and three deacons were mown down in a street after Mass by a hail of bullets.

An Orthodox priest was kidnapped, beheaded and dismembered in October 2006, andanother shot in Baghdad lastmonth.

Religious fanatics and criminal opportunists are combining to terrorise a minority without friendsor protection.

Christians are fleeing from every country in the Middle East if they can, but the situation in Iraq is worse. It is another example of ethnic cleansing.

Cardinal Pell is Australia’s most senior Catholic cleric.