by Gerald Butt Middle East Correspondent
Nuns in Rome protesting Â© not advert
Protests against Iraqi attacks: left: Iraqi nuns with olive branches in Mosul; below: a banner in St Peterâ€™s Square, Rome, last Sunday AP
CHURCH leaders world wide have expressed concern for Christians in Iraq and Egypt during the lead-up to parliamentary elections in both countries later this year.
Iraqi and Egyptian Christians fear for their safety after a number of secÂtarian killings over the past two months. Many believe they are being deliberately targeted.
Pope Benedict XVI expressed his â€œdeep sorrowâ€ over the recent deaths of Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and emphasised his solidarity through â€œprayer and affecÂtionâ€ with â€œthose suffering the conÂsequence of violenceâ€.
The Popeâ€™s words were described by the Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf, the Rt Revd Michael Lewis, as a â€œtimelyâ€ response to the â€œtragic reÂports of the murderous actions of anti-Christian elementsâ€.
Eight Christians have been killed in Mosul over recent weeks. In one inÂcident, armed militiamen broke into the home of a 59-year-old man and shot him and his two adult sons. In another incident, an engineering stuÂdent at Mosul University was shot dead, and his friend was wounded.
In a separate attack on a house in the city, the charity Open Doors says that five people were killed when gunmen â€œforced themselves into the house and gunned down an entire family. They even threw two bodies outside the house as a cruel warning for others.â€
So many frightened Christians are now leaving Mosul that the Chaldean Archbishop, Mar Emil Shimoun Nona, has warned of a â€œhumanitarian emerÂgencyâ€ in the region. â€œThe situation is dramatic,â€ he said, and his Church was giving emergency aid, because â€œthe people fled without taking anyÂthing with them.â€ The Archbishop exÂpressed fears that soon Mosul would be â€œemptied completely of ChrisÂtiansâ€.
One Western diplomat said that hundreds of Christians were abanÂdoning the city and seeking safety in Christian villages on the plains of Nineveh. Eyewitnesses described an â€œatmosphere of panicâ€ as those who remained shut their shops or busiÂnesses and retreated into their homes. Armed Christian militia are patrolÂling some of the surrounding villages.
Bishop Lewis said that the events of recent weeks had placed the Christian clergy, in particular, in a dilemma: â€œThey are torn between accepting offers of extensive, visible security, and keeping a low profile.â€
Many Christians believe that the killings are part of a systematic attempt to intimidate their minority community before this weekendâ€™s parliamentary elections.
Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, there were believed to be about 20,000 Christians in Mosul; today, just under half that number remain. Church leaders fear that Christians are being caught up in a power struggle between Muslims and Kurds as they contest the oil-rich areas in the north.
In a joint statement, the ArchÂbishops of the Roman Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, and Chaldean Churches condemned the Baghdad government for failing to prevent the killings in Mosul, and called on its members â€œfully [to] assume their responsibility to work for the security of citizens, especially for the faithful of the Christian minority, who are the most vulnerable and most peaceful of allâ€.
Bishop Lewis also expressed the hope that â€œthe government that emerges from the election will make the security of religious communities, both people and property, a top priority.â€
Christians in Egypt are also bracing themselves for possible violence in the run-up to elections in May, which, the eight-million-strong Coptic comÂmunity fears, may heighten secÂtarian tensions.
In early January, six Copts were killed while leaving a church after mass on Coptic Christmas Eve. Relatives of the victims had little doubt that the deaths were politically motivated. â€œSome parliamentary candidates we have not supported in the past are trying to intimidate us into not voting this year,â€ the cousin of one of the victims said. â€œThey are creating tenÂsions in order to step in at a later time and resolve it and win us over on their side.â€
The killings took place against a backdrop of sectarian discrimination. Copts form ten per cent of the Egyptian population, but the governÂment routinely refuses to issue perÂmits necessary for the legal construcÂtion of churches.