Christians face threats in Iraq


From USA TODAY. By Aamer Madhani

HAMDANIYAH, Iraq — The small bomb exploded inside the courtyard of the motherhouse just moments after Sister Maria Hanna received an anonymous phone call warning her to get her nuns out of the area.

The recent attack on the Immaculate Virgin convent was nothing new. By Hanna's count, it was the 20th time the convent in the nearby northern city of Mosul had come under attack since the start of the war.

"One time it was an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade)," said Hanna, ticking off the litany of attacks against the convent that has been her home for 52 years. "One time a car bomb exploded just outside the motherhouse. One time they set fire to a propane can and left it in front of our gate."

The attacks in Mosul reflect how daily life remains tenuous for many Christians in Iraq, where complex and long-lasting religious conflicts and sectarian violence among Muslim militants persist despite improving security.

Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 there were about 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, a Muslim-dominated nation of nearly 30 million. Since then, about 50% of Iraq's Christians have fled the country, taking refuge in neighboring Jordan, Syria, Europe and the USA, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Here in northern Nineveh province, life for Iraq's diminishing Christian community is particularly bleak. At least 5,000 Christians from the provincial capital of Mosul fled the city after targeted attacks in late 2009 and early this year left at least 12 Christians dead, according to a UNHRC report.

In an attack earlier this month, two bombs exploded near buses carrying Christian students from Hamdaniyah to Mosul University, killing a bystander in the area and injuring several students and other civilians.

Despite all the violence, Hanna and three of her fellow Assyrian Catholic nuns have refused to abandon their convent even as hundreds of families have fled Mosul for this nearby village and other Christian towns in northern Iraq.

"Not everyone can leave," said Hanna, who agreed to speak to USA TODAY on the condition that the interview be conducted outside Mosul. "The Christian people need us here. They need our work. They need our presence."

The security situation in Iraq has improved significantly during the last three years but the plight of the Christian community continues to be complicated, and has raised concerns among U.S. government agencies and lawmakers in Washington who worry that the Iraqi government isn't doing enough to protect the religious minority.

Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on the U.S. government and United Nations to put pressure on the Iraqi government to "enhance security at places of worship in Iraq, particularly where members of vulnerable religious minority communities are known to be at risk."

Designation sought

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government panel tasked with monitoring religious freedoms around the world for the State Department, recently recommended that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton designate Iraq as a "country of particular concern" because of the violence against Christians and other religious minorities.

The commission made the same recommendation in 2008, but then-President Bush did not act on it. With such a designation, Iraq potentially would face economic and military sanctions, according to the commission.

Leonard Leo, chairman of the commission, said even if the administration doesn't impose sanctions it has the leverage to push the Iraqi government to do a better job protecting minority rights.

"The big problem in Iraq is that there is a climate of impunity," Leo said in an interview. "We provide an enormous amount of aid and that can be used to push the Iraqis to calibrate and bolster some of the policies to protect Christians and other minorities."

The State Department said in a statement that embassy officials have pressed Iraqi lawmakers to address the plight of Christians. They also have encouraged the Iraqi government to recruit Christians to join the army and police force. But the State Department says it does not believe Iraq meets the criteria to be designated as a country of particular concern.

In a wide-ranging interview with USA TODAY in March, Ambassador Christopher Hill said the targeting of Christians by militants in Iraq was alarming. "It is, of course, worrying, but ultimately it's an issue that the government of Iraq has to resolve," Hill said.

It's also an issue that is causing alarm in areas of the USA with a significant Iraqi Christian community.

Rep. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said he decided to sponsor a resolution calling on the U.S. government to push the Iraqi government to do more to protect Christians after hearing concerns from many of his constituents. A similar resolution was introduced in the Senate.

In Adrian, Mich., Sister Donna Markham has helped direct a letter-writing campaign in the Catholic community calling on the U.S. government to take a stronger position in the matter.

"We worry about the safety of Christians in Iraq and are encouraging our government to push the Iraqi government to increase security in Christian communities," Markham said. "But I do recognize that this is a very sensitive matter for our government to take on."

Some Christians believe the most recent violence was part of a government campaign to keep them away from the polls during the March 7 elections that left Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish coalitions jockeying for power.

Others said it was part of a plot by the Kurds to get Christians to flee to their side of the tense fault line in northern Iraq that divides Kurds and Arabs, said William Warda, a Christian human rights advocate in Baghdad.

The pre-election violence marked at least the fourth major wave of attacks against Christians over the last seven years, Warda said.

The first spate of attacks occurred in 2004 — a period when the security situation was generally deteriorating — when the terror group al-Qaeda in Iraq carried out coordinated bombings of churches in Baghdad and Mosul.

Shiite militants later carried out a series of bombings and assassinations that targeted liquor stores in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, a business that had been dominated by Christians.

There were more attacks on Christians in 2006, during the height of the sectarian violence that pulled Iraq to precipice of civil war. In 2008, Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped and later found dead.

"With each of these rounds of killing and intimidation, we lost thousands of Christians to Jordan, Syria, Europe and America," Warda said. "We are now trapped in a battle between Kurds and Arabs for Mosul."

Read the full story at USA TODAY.

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