Iraqi Christian Leaders Seek Help

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The pastor of St. Peter Chaldean Catholic Cathedral in southern California said that Christians in Iraq “are facing extreme persecution.”

“Some are fleeing without even taking their clothes because of the persecution,” Father Michael Bazzi told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from El Cajon, Calif., June 30.

“Although there needs to be a Christian witness in Iraq, how can people stay if they need ransom money every week and cannot go to church or pray or work?” he asked.

His comments followed the release of a statement from 76 Iraqi Christian leaders who convened the second All-Iraqi Christian Leadership Conference June 26 just outside of Mosul, Iraq.

The leaders, who came from a variety of churches, political parties and civil groups, and representatives of other minority groups issued a statement appealing to the government in Baghdad to help Iraq’s oppressed minority community.

They called for amendments to the country’s constitution that would strengthen minority rights and legislation to implement such constitutional guarantees; financing of programs to assist returning refugees; establishment of a commission for minority affairs to promote peaceful dialogue among religious and ethnic groups; security for vulnerable minority communities; and increased representation of Christians in federal and state parliaments.

The group also urged increased investment in the “infrastructure of previously marginalized areas populated mainly by minorities” and called for the establishment of a university in Nineveh province, one area where Iraq’s minority groups are concentrated. Minority communities are also in the Kurdistan region, Kirkuk province and Baghdad.

According to accounts by Christians, Kurds, Turkmen and members of other minority groups, the persecution of their communities has included targeted killings, gender-based violence and attacks on religious sites. They also have reported arbitrary arrests and intimidation; political disenfranchisement; internal displacement, resulting in the loss of property; and discrimination in accessing public services.

The conference held near Mosul was sponsored by the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization and Christian Solidarity International, a human rights and religious liberty organization that helps victims of religious repression.

In a June 28 press release about the conference, John Eibner, chief executive officer of Christian Solidarity International’s U.S. affiliate, said that Iraq’s ancient Christian community faces extinction if the violent persecution does not stop and human rights are not secured.

After the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 2003, half of Iraq’s approximately 1 million Christians have been forced to flee the country because of the violence. The rest remain in Iraq as internally displaced people.

Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk has urged Christians to remain in Iraq because of the need for an “enduring Christian witness” in the country.

Father Bazzi told CNS that when he was in Turkey in June, he learned that 4,000 Chaldeans are on their way to Turkey from Iraq.

He estimated that 8,000 Chaldean Christians from Europe and Iraq have moved to the San Diego area in the past year. An estimated 20,000 Iraqi refugees have arrived in San Diego County since 2007.

The priest described his parish efforts to support the Chaldean refugees who come to San Diego, calling on Catholic Charities and the U.S. bishops to help them.

Every Friday, he said, refugees line up outside his church for mattresses and blankets so they do not have to sleep on the ground.

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