Written by David E. Miller
As American troops exit Iraq, attacks against the Christian minority continue.
The number of Christians in Iraq has dwindled to half of what it was before the American invasion in 2003, an Iraqi official said.
Abdallah Al-Nofali, head of the governmentâ€™s Bureau for the Endowments of Christians and Other Religions, said in an interview with the Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat that according to a recent survey some 40 percent of Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christian.
According to UN statistics, 1.5 million Christians of different sects were living in Baghdad before the American invasion.
â€œThe majority of Christians left Iraq because of religious persecution by extremists,â€ Joe Obayda, an Iraqi ex-pat living in England told The Media Line. â€œToday there are less than 500,000 Christians left in Iraq.â€
Obayda is a member of the executive council of Iraqi Christians In Need (ICIN), a British charity set up in May 2007 to address the influx of Christians leaving Iraq.
He said that his charity helped both Christian Iraqi refugees in neighboring Arab countries and internally displaced Christians in Iraq.
Obayda said that his cousin was forced to flee Iraq after militants tried to forcefully convert his daughters to Islam and demanded money from him.
He added that the United States was partially to blame for the plight of Iraqi Christians.
â€œThe Americans did not foresee the problems that would occur [as a result of the invasion], even though they should have,â€ he said. â€œNow that the Americans have left Iraq, the Christians will become a greater target than they already are.â€
UNHCR Public Information Officer in Syria Farah Dakhlallah said that the refugees of Syria are predominantly Muslim, not Christian.
â€œUNHCR currently provides protection and assistance to almost 152,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria,â€ Dakhlallah told The Media Line. â€œThe refugee population, like Iraqi society, is diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status. The majority of those registered with UNHCR are Sunni Muslim at 62 percent, then come the Shia Muslims at 19 percent and the Christians at 11 percent.â€
â€œThe Syrian Government counts over 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria,â€ Dakhlallah added. â€œUNHCR cannot reliably verify this figure. We can only account for the number of refugees registered with us, which currently stands at about 152,000.â€
Dakhlallah said that Iraqi Christians, like members of other religious groups, might benefit from community networks such as faith-based charities.
â€œWe assist refugees according to their needs, based on their level of vulnerability,â€ Dakhlallah said.
Meanwhile, the intention of Florida reverend Terry Jones to burn a copy of the Quran on September 11 hit Iraqi Christians hard.
William Wardah, president of the Iraqi Hammurabi Human Rights Organization said that Christians are always the first victims of provocative anti-Muslim protests abroad.
â€œOn September 9, eleven churches in Baghdad were threatened,â€ he told The Media Line. â€œThe police placed churches and Christian institutions under increased surveillance.â€
â€œMany Christians in Baghdad were verbally abused, especially in â€˜hotterâ€™ areas of the city,â€ Wardah said. â€œThey were told: â€˜this time you [the Christians] provoked us, it wasnâ€™t us who provoked you.â€
Wardah blamed the American presence in Iraq for Christian suffering in the country.
â€œHatred for Christians here is a reaction to American activities in Iraq,â€ he said. â€œI even raised this issue with the American Ambassador.â€
â€œInnocent Christians always pay the price for statements like those made by Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush in the past,â€ Wardah added. â€œChristians have lived alongside Muslims for centuries, and there werenâ€™t many problems.â€
Canon Andrew White, the vicar of St. George, Iraqâ€™s only Anglican Church said that Christians lived under severe threat in Baghdad.
â€œIt has been very bad, but things have quieted down a bit over the past few days,â€ he told The Media Line. â€œWeâ€™ve had many Christians killed.â€
White said enraged Muslims told him that Christians were no longer respecting the Prophet Muhammad.
Joe Obayda was not optimistic about the future of Christians in Iraq.
â€œTheir situation is very difficult. Only last week the Syrian-Catholic church in Basra was bombed, but nobody mentions this.â€