BAGHDAD – Despite the chaos and sectarian violence raging across Baghdad, Farouq Mansour felt relatively safe as a Christian living in a multiethnic neighborhood in the capital.
Then, two months ago, Al Qaeda gunmen kidnapped him and demanded that his family convert to Islam or pay a $30,000 ransom. Two weeks later, he paid up, was released and immediately fled to Syria, joining a mass exodus of Iraq's increasingly threatened Christian minority.
"There is no future for us in Iraq," Mansour said.
Although Islamic extremists have targeted Iraqi Christians before, bombing churches and threatening religious leaders, the latest attacks have taken on a far more personal tone. Many Christians are being expelled from their homes and forced to leave their possessions behind, police, human rights groups and residents said.
The Christian community here, about 3 percent of the country's 26 million people, has little political or military clout to defend itself, and some Islamic insurgents call Christians "crusaders" whose real loyalty lies with U.S. troops.
Many churches are now nearly empty, with many of their faithful either gone or too scared to attend. Only about 30 people attended this Sunday's mass at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in the relatively safe Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah, and only two dozen took communion in the barren St. Mary's Church in the northern city of Kirkuk on Sunday.
As many as 50 percent of Iraq's Christians may already have left the country, according to a report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federal monitoring and advisory group in Washington D.C.
"These groups face widespread violence from Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadis, and they also suffer pervasive discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the national government, regional governments, and para-state militias," said the report.
Islamic extremists have also targeted liquor stores, hair salons and other Christian-owned businesses, saying they violate Islam, the report said.
"This is not the culture of Iraqis or the nature of Iraqis. We have lived during centuries together in a respectful attitude and friendship," said Luwis Zarco, the Catholic archbishop of Kirkuk.
In much of the Middle East, Christians are a largely tolerated minority that have achieved a measure of business and professional success, but they are sometimes viewed with suspicion by their Muslim neighbors.
In Saddam-era Iraq, the country's 800,000 Christians — many of them Chaldean-Assyrians and Armenians, with small numbers of Roman Catholics — were generally left alone. Many, such as Saddam Hussein's foreign minister and deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz, reached the highest levels of power.
But after U.S. forces toppled Saddam, insurgents launched a coordinated bombing campaign in the summer of 2004 against Baghdad churches, sending some Christians fleeing in fear.
A second wave of anti-Christian attacks hit last September after Pope Benedict XVI made comments perceived to be anti-Islam. Church bombings spiked and a priest in the northern city of Mosul was kidnapped and later found beheaded.
In the recent violence, residents of the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora said gunmen knocked on the doors of Christian families, demanding they either pay jizya — a special tax traditionally levied on non-Muslims — or leave. The jizya has not been imposed in Muslim nations in about 100 years.
One man, Arakan Admon, was wounded in a drive-by shooting last week when his family ignored the threats, relatives said.
In response to the threats, about 70 percent of Dora's Christians have fled, police said.
"The terrorists want to turn Dora into a base to attack other Baghdad neighborhoods," said Christian lawmaker Younadam Kana. "Criminal gangs made use of the situation and they started to kidnap Christians and demand ransom. It is a coalition between terrorists and criminals."
The southern neighborhood is a Sunni insurgent stronghold that has seen frequent U.S. shelling under a security crackdown against the sectarian violence.
In the northern city of Mosul, men began knocking on doors last month, demanding that Christian families pay a $3,000 tax that would be used to fight the U.S.-led forces, local residents said. Some paid; others fled.
Mansour, a 63-year-old retiree, said that while many other Christians left, he chose to stay in his Amariyah neighborhood in western Baghdad. He was hoping that the Baghdad security plan, which U.S.-led forces launched on Feb. 14, would improve the situation.
"But the opposite happened," he said.
Mansour was kidnapped March 11 by gunmen who identified themselves as Al Qaeda. After 15 days in captivity, his family paid the ransom and fled the country, leaving their home and electric appliance store behind, Mansour said in a telephone interview from Syria.