Christians fleeing Mosul as targeted murders continue

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Mosul, Iraq, (CNA).-
The Vatican communicated on Wednesday that the Holy Father reacted with “deep sorrow” upon hearing the news of the most recent killings of Christians in Iraq, which reached him while he was on his annual Lenten retreat. The Holy See had urged respect for Iraqi Christians in a January letter to country’s premier, but after continuing violence Christians have started to flee the city.
The Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano reported the Pope’s sadness upon learning of the assassination of the father and two brothers of a Syro-Catholic priest in Mosul on Tuesday. He reacted with “deep sorrow,” the paper said, while also relaying the Pope’s closeness through prayer and affection “to all who suffer the consequences of violence.”
Cardinal Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone had written a letter to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamil Mohammed al-Maliki on Jan. 2, at the Pope’s behest, inviting a “moral and civil reconstruction” of the nation through “dialogue and cooperation between ethnic and religious groups… including minorities.”
He expressed his hope that this would happen in “full respect of the individual identities of those groups, in a spirit of reconciliation and in search of the common good.”
Cardinal Bertone also reminded the Iraqi leader of how Pope Benedict had asked him at the Vatican in 2008 to ensure that the right to freedom of religion be respected and that Christians and their churches would be protected.
On this occasion, related the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister had provided his personal assurance that the Iraqi government “took the situation of the Christian minority very seriously.”
The cardinal closed his Jan 2. letter by asking Nouri al-Maliki to “pray with fervor for an end to the violence” and to have the government do “everything possible to increase security around places of worship in the entire country.”
On Tuesday, three Christians were murdered in their home by unknown assailants. The victims were the father and two brothers of the Syro-Catholic priest Fr. Mazen Ishoa, who was himseld abducted and later released in Oct. 2007.
A Syro-Catholic priest, who is based in Rome but from Mosul, informed CNA on Wednesday morning that after the attack on Tuesday, many Christians are fleeing Mosul for the Christian cities and villages in the surrounding plain of Nineveh.
Many of the Christians, he continued, left with only the clothes they were wearing and some had already arrived at a convent in the city of Alqosh.
The priest also mentioned the recent of appeal from the Episcopal Conferences of the Syro-Catholic, Chaldean and Syro-Orthodox Churches for an international intervention on behalf of Iraqi Christians.
This is important, he wrote, “being as it is that the governments of Baghdad and the region of Nineveh are incapable of defending Iraqi Christians, especially those from Mosul.”



Today the House passed (by a vote of 415-3) H.Res. 944, a resolution supporting religious minorities in Iraq.  The resolution was debated on the Floor yesterday.  The text of the debate can be accessed at the following link: 


Mr. Wolf submitted the remarks below to the Congressional Record.


Floor Statement HON. FRANK R. WOLF of VirginiaIn the House of RepresentativesTuesday, February 23, 2010 

In Support of H.Res. 944 Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives on religious minorities in Iraq 


Mr. WOLF.  Madam Speaker, I rise today in support of H. Res. 944 and thank the Chair and Ranking Member for their efforts to bring this to the floor for consideration at such a pivotal time in Iraq.


A February 6 ABC News story opened with the following observation: “Across the Middle East, where Christianity was born and its followers once made up a sizable portion of the population, Christians are now tiny minorities.”


This is perhaps no more true than in Iraq.  With the exception of Israel, the Bible contains more references to the cities, regions and nations of ancient Iraq than any other country.  The patriarch Abraham came from a city in Iraq called Ur.  Isaac’s bride, Rebekah, came from northwest Iraq.  Jacob spent 20 years in Iraq and his sons (the 12 tribes of Israel) were born in northwest Iraq.  A remarkable spiritual revival as told in the book of Jonah occurred in Nineveh.  The events of the book of Esther took place in Iraq as did the account of Daniel in the Lion’s Den.


Tragically Iraq’s ancient Christian community is facing extinction.  The U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimates that some 250,000 to 500,000 Christians have left the country since 2003, or about half the Christian population.  According to the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), “while Christians and other religious minorities represented only approximately 3 percent of the pre-2003 Iraqi population, they constitute approximately 15 and 20 percent of registered Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, respectively, and Christians account for 35 and 64 percent, respectively, of all registered Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and Turkey.” 


It is critical to note, as the figures above indicate, that the violence and intimidation that Iraq’s Christians and other vulnerable ethno-religious communities have faced is targeted.  In July 2008, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration & Refugee Services said this about the minority religious communities: “These groups, whose home has been what is now Iraq for many centuries, are literally being obliterated — not because they are fleeing generalized violence but because they are being specifically and viciously victimized by Islamic extremists and, in some cases, common criminals.” 

Reports indicate that since 2003, more than 200 Christians have been killed in Iraq, and since June 2004, 65 churches have been attacked or bombed.  The situation facing these minority communities is not improving.  In fact there has been a recent uptick in violence in the lead up to the elections in Iraq.  A Reuters story last week reported that, “With Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary vote looming, a spike in attacks against Christians could be a sign of voter intimidation by factions in the bitter Kurd-Arab dispute, or another attempt by al Qaeda to derail the election.”


            I have appreciated Ambassador Chris Hill’s commitment to this issue.  In recent correspondence he indicated that “the security of the Christian community remains one of my paramount concerns, especially in light of attacks directed at Christian churches in Baghdad and Mosul over the past five months.”


            But there needs to be leadership from the highest levels within the State Department as well. I have long advocated, both during the previous administration and in the current administration, that the U.S. needs to adopt a comprehensive policy to address the unique situation of these defenseless minorities.  This resolution includes language urging the Secretary of State to develop just such a strategy.    


            It is time for this administration to start taking religious freedom seriously.  The position of U.S. ambassador for International Religious Freedom has been vacant for more than a year while other more junior posts have been filled.  There’s a saying in Washington that personnel is policy.  When there isn’t personnel, the policy inevitably suffers.  


The ancient faith communities of Iraq and others enduring religious persecution worldwide deserve a voice.  This resolution is a step in the right direction.