(CNSNews.com) - An international organization supporting Christian minorities in Islamic societies has launched a new campaign to draw attention to the plight of Iraq's Christians, a community which it says "faces extinction."
The U.K.-based Barnabas Fund, a charitable and advocacy group, said this week that Islamic extremists in Iraq are telling Christians to convert, leave or face death.
"The militants are well on the way to succeeding in their aim, at least in the south and central areas, as Christians flee the restrictions, threats and violence imposed on them."
Iraq's Christians -- who include Chaldean Catholics, Assyrians, Orthodox Syriacs, Catholic and Orthodox Armenians, and Protestants -- are mostly non-Arabs who trace their origins to the ancient Assyrian empire.
Members of one of the world's oldest Christian communities, they have over the centuries survived persecution and ill-treatment at the hands of Muslim Arabs, Kurds, Turks and Mongols, the Barnabas Fund said.
During World War I, some 750,000 Assyrians were killed by Ottoman Turks and Kurds, an atrocity far less frequently discussed than the atrocities committed against the Armenians over the same period.
The Minority Rights Group International this year named Iraq the second-most dangerous country in the world for minorities, after Somalia. Apart from Christians, Iraq also has very small minorities of Yezidis, adherents of a religion that predates Islam and Christianity; and Mandaeans, a sect that reveres John the Baptist.
A 1987 census recorded 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, according to a State Department report in September. Researchers say the numbers began to drop steadily after the 1990 Gulf War, with some attributing this to a rise in anti-Christian sentiment as a result of the war and international sanctions campaign.
The exodus sped up following the 2003 U.S.-led war to topple Saddam Hussein, and today, estimates of the community's size range from 300,000 to 800,000, with a Chaldean bishop in Baghdad in mid-2006 putting the figure at 600,000.
Religious freedom researchers say Sunni, Shi'a and Kurdish elements have been implicated in the maltreatment of Christians.
The Barnabas Fund published translations of letters sent by Shi'a organizations to Christians in Baghdad ordering women to wear the Islamic veil or face the consequences.
A letter sent to one Christian family threatened death, kidnapping and bombing or the burning down of its house if the family did not comply with wearing the veil and following Islamic principles.
It reported cases of Christian women threatened, kidnapped, assaulted and killed.
The Barnabas Fund said many Christians who have left Iraq are struggling with basic needs in neighboring Syria and Jordan. Of those who remain in the country, many have moved to the autonomous Kurdish area in the north.
The organization, which has been helping the community inside Iraq since 1999, urged Christians to lobby their elected representatives about offering Iraqi Christians at risk asylum in their countries.
'Violence, discrimination, marginalization'
A fortnight ago, in what was seen as a reflection of the Vatican's concern about indigenous Christian minorities in the Middle East, Pope Benedict named a Chaldean church leader, Emmanuel III Delly, as one of 23 new Roman Catholic cardinals.
Delly, who warned in a statement last May that Iraqi Christians were facing "blackmail, kidnapping and displacement" at the hands of Sunni insurgents and said the government was not acting to protect the community, met Saturday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The prime minister said in a statement afterwards that his government was committed to defending Christians and preventing the further exodus from Iraq.
Iraq's post-Saddam constitution guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religious belief and practice, but it also declares Islam to be the official religion and states that no law may be enacted that contradicts the established provisions of Islam.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent body advising the White House and Congress on religious persecution issues, reported in its 2007 annual report that Iraq's non-Muslim minorities "face widespread violence from Sunni insurgents and foreign jihadis."
"They also suffer pervasive discrimination and marginalization at the hands of the national government, regional governments and para-state militias, including those in Kurdish areas," it said.
The commission consequently placed Iraq on a "watch list" and said if the situation doesn't improve, it will recommend that it be listed as a "country of particular concern" (CPC) under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act.
Iraq was put onto the CPC list in 1992, but the administration removed it in 2003 after toppling the Saddam regime. Designation provides for a range of actions against governments that engage or tolerate egregious religious freedom violations, including sanctions.
Countries currently on the CPC list are Burma, China, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Eritrea.
See Earlier Stories:
Baghdad Church Deals With Leadership Loss (Sept. 5, 2005)
Iraq's Beleaguered Christians More Fearful Than Ever (Aug. 2, 2004)
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