How can I close the house of God?

You may not have ever heard about a 35-five year old Iraqi named Ragheed Ghanni, but his story is at once tragic and inspiring. A Chaldean Catholic priest, belonging to the small but ancient Iraqi Christian community, Fr. Ragheed was a brilliant student who studied in Rome before returning in 2006 to serve as pastor of a parish in the city of Mosul. He willingly returned despite the danger to himself.

He returned knowing that the persecution of the Christian minority in Iraq was getting worse daily, a persecution so violent and relentless that the number of Christians in Iraq have fallen from an estimated 1.5 million people in 2003 to fewer than 250,000.

Once back in Mosul, Muslim extremists threatened to kill Fr. Ragheed unless he immediately closed his church. He refused to do so. On June 3, 2007, after leaving Mass with three deacons and the wife of one of the deacons, his car was stopped by armed men. The deacon’s wife, the only survivor, recounted what happened next:

“Fr Ragheed could have fled, but he did not want to, because he knew they were looking for him. They forced us to get out of the car, and led me away. Then one of the killers screamed at Ragheed, ‘I told you to close the church, why didn’t you do it? Why are you still here?’. And he simply responded, ‘How can I close the house of God?‘ They immediately pushed him to the ground, and Ragheed had only enough time to gesture to me with his head that I should run away. Then they opened fire and killed all four of them.”

In addition to Fr. Ragheed, many other Catholic and Orthodox priests as well as Protestant ministers and the remaining members of their faith communities have been the victims of violence, intimidation, kidnapping and even murder. Christians are not the only ones targeted (thousands of Muslim Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, have been the victims of ongoing sectarian violence and wholesale ethnic cleansing since the 2003 American invasion of Iraq). But Muslim extremist groups have singled out the Christian minority because of their faith. Churches all over the country have been the target of bombings and congregations have been attacked, even while at prayer, by armed gunmen.

Very few Christians remain in Baghdad, a mere fraction of the 200,000 who lived there at the beginning of 2003.

Extremist groups are open about their intention to drive out the Christian minority. In October 2010 when gunmen from the “Islamic State of Iraq” took responsibility for the attack on Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Cathedral and murdered 52 worshippers, including two priests, they demanded that all Christians should leave Iraq.

The violence against Iraqi Christians has become so severe that in a few short years there may no longer be a Christian presence in that country as refugees pour out of the country in search of safety. The United Nations estimates that Christians, who are only 3 percent of Iraq’s population of 30 million people, make up 40 percent of the 1.6 million Iraqi refugees living outside of the country.

The hatred, contempt and violence endured by Iraqi Christians are just some of the more extreme examples of the persecution (often violent) that Christian believers experience around the world. In 2010, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community, drawing on data collected by international human rights organizations, estimated that at least 75 percent of all religious persecution was directed at Christians.

In some countries, such as China, persecution is state policy. In China, Christian groups not recognized by the state are the target of severe repression: churches are shut down and religious leaders are imprisoned or kept under house arrest.

In other countries, government authorities lack the political will to stop the violent activities of extremist groups. For example, in India, (where Christians are only 2 percent of the population), over the past decade police and security forces in a number of Indian states have stood by and done nothing when mobs of extreme Hindu nationalists have rampaged through Christian neighborhoods, burning churches, religious schools and private homes.

Christians are not the only people of faith who suffer ill-treatment and persecution in our world. The ongoing repression of the Bahai minority in Iran and of the Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet and other parts of China are particularly egregious examples government religious persecution.

Religious liberty is a fundamental and God-given human right. All of us, religious believers and people of good will, should not be silent about the persecution of religious believers, including Christians. We have a moral obligation to do what we can on their behalf.

• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska