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The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq says that the number of Christian houses of worship there has dwindled alarmingly in the decade since the U.S. invaded and ousted Saddam Hussein from power.
There are just 57 Christian churches in the entire country, down from more than 300 as recently as 2003, Patriarch Louis Sako told Egyptian-based news agency MidEast Christian News. The churches that remain are frequent targets of Islamic extremists, who have driven nearly a million Christians out of the land, say human rights advocates.
“The last 10 years have been the worst for Iraqi Christians because they bore witness to the biggest exodus and migration in the history of Iraq,” William Warda, the head of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization told the news agency.
Many Christians live in the provinces of Baghdad, Nineveh, and Kirkuk, and Dohuk and Erbil, which are both in the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Warda said some 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq prior to Hussein's ouster. Under the democratically-elected government that now oversees the war-torn, but oil-rich nation, Islamic extremists have been able to operate more freely.
“More than two-thirds [of Christians] have emigrated,” Warda noted.
One byproduct of regime change in the Middle East, whether at the hand of the U.S. military and its allies or demonstrators in the streets, has been a decline in tolerance for other religions, say experts. Only one Catholic church remains in Afghanistan, and it must be heavily protected. In Egypt and Libya, where demonstrators overthrew dictators in recent years, Christians have come under heavy persecution, say concerned advocates.
“What is clear is that the mass exodus of Christians in the Middle East - including Iraq - has been caused by radical Islam - whether by Islamic governments, terrorist organizations, or extreme Islamists," said Tiffany Barrans, international legal director of the American Center for Law and Justice. "We examined the issue in Iraq in a 2011 report from our European affiliate. At that time, we determined that Al Qaeda had been strategically targeting Iraqi Christians - even issuing a warning to all Christians to leave the country.
One of the most dramatic cases of Christian persecution came in late October of 2010, when Al Qaeda members laid siege to Our Lady of Deliverance Church in Baghdad, killing 58 and wounding 78 in a bloodbath Pope Benedict XVI denounced as “ferocious.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also condemned the attack, calling it an attempt to drive more Christians out of the country.
“This tragic event sent a powerful message to Christians in Iraq - they are in grave danger and should leave the country," Barrans said. “Iraq’s hostility toward Christianity is well documented. Tragically, Iraq is another example of a country where the government does not tolerate Christians or other religious minorities.”