KIRKUK, Iraq — In Israel and Jordan recently, Pope Benedict XVI spoke much about the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land.
But Christians in Iraq also face threats that lead many to emigrate — and the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country doesn't help.
On April 26, three people were murdered in the northern city of Kirkuk. It was a seemingly not unusual occurrence for a country plagued by violence in recent years.
But Susan Latif David, her mother-in-law, Muna Banna David, and another man, Basil Shaba, were Christians — a stark reminder that life for this Iraqi minority group is uncertain and brutish, and may get worse.
June 30 Pullout Date
"All three of them were innocent people — just poor people living their lives in peace," said Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk. "They were not involved with politics or factions. The young lady was just married 18 months ago. The young man, who belonged to another family, was living with his father and his brother. Criminals entered their house and shot them all."
As to who could have done it, Archbishop Sako said, "We are still waiting for the results of the investigation."
A U.S.-Iraqi security agreement stipulates that U.S. troops will pull out of all of Iraq's urban areas by June 30. The remaining U.S. forces, except for a small advisory corps, are scheduled to pull out of Iraq by the close of 2011.
The scheduled departure of U.S. forces has many worried that Iraq's already terrorized Christian population will be left defenseless.
"The violence is not under control," said Younadam Kanna, a Christian member of the Iraqi parliament and chairman of the Assyrian Democratic Movement. "The violence in Iraq is not only against Christians, but everywhere," Kanna noted. "The Iraqi government says that they have enough troops and security forces, but we are doubtful they can do the job. There are just not enough credible security forces loyal to Iraq, and many of the forces are infiltrated by [Islamic] sectarian groups and insurgents."
Most Christians in Iraq are ethnically Assyrian, descendants of the Assyrian Empire, whose capital was once Nineveh.
The Assyrians received Christianity from St. Thomas the Apostle. Today, Iraq's Christians are divided roughly into three groups: Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans.
In the West, the Chaldeans are perhaps best known and are in full communion with Rome.
A New Exodus
Within months of the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion, sectarian and terrorist insurgent groups began to attack U.S. forces, each other and Iraq's Christian communities. Christians were singled out and targeted because they were accused of being allies of the U.S. "occupiers," since many Americans are Christian.
According to U.N. reports, although Iraq's Christians make up less than 5% of the total population, they now account for well over 40% of Iraq's current refugees.
"Prior to the war," notes Michael Youash, project director for the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, a D.C.-based think tank, "there were some 1.5 million Iraqi Christians. Now, one in three has either been killed, fled Iraq or is an internally displaced person — a refugee in their own country."
While the troop surge of 2007 and 2008 reduced the overall level of violence in Iraq, this was not the case for the Christian communities.
A false sense of security developed among Christians when Christmas of 2007 went without significant violence.
This illusion of peace was shattered in January 2008, with the bombing of four churches, two convents and an orphanage.
In February 2008, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul was kidnapped and later found in a shallow grave.
"Beginning in early 2008, there has been a planned program of ethno-religious cleansing of Christians from Iraq," stated Youash.
Starting in cities like Baghdad, Mosul (in the north) and Basra (in the south), "whole Christian populations were given the option to flee their homes, convert to Islam or be killed," Youash noted.
By the end of October 2008, upwards of 3,500 families had fled from the city of Mosul alone. Many of the refugees now seek refuge on the Nineveh Plain, a region in northwest Iraq. "We have reports of refugees taking shelter in cemeteries and bombed-out buildings, wherever they can."
Some, Youash said somberly, "don't find shelter and have died of exposure."
For those Christians who do escape Iraq, the odds are still not good. "Iraqi Christians are piling up in Syrian and Jordanian refugee camps," said Juliana Taimoorazy, president of the Chicago-based Iraqi Christian Relief Council, which advocates for Iraqi Christian refugees in the United States and Iraq. "These refugees are not allowed to work or go to school," Taimoorazy said. "They sit waiting and wondering if the U.S. will allow them to enter the country."
"They are trapped," she said.
Although the troop withdrawal is imminent, the future for Iraq's Christians now depends, notes Youash, less on U.S. troops and more on U.S. and Iraqi policy.
"The U.S. State Department has yet to articulate a policy that recognizes the unique and precarious situation for Iraq's Christian population," Youash said. "Instead, the United States has adopted a policy of equal attention to all victims of violence in Iraq."
"The effect of this policy," Youash points out, "is to promote a 'myth of equality' among victims of the violence in Iraq. This myth is driving the Christians out of Iraq."
For those Christians who remain in Iraq, hope mingles with fear. Christians in Kirkuk worry that April's killings are the beginning of another campaign of violence and terror on the part of radical Islamists like those in Baghdad or Mosul. But the hopeful possibility for peace exists.
The reaction of Kirkuk's mainstream Muslim community to the three murders was one of shock followed by solidarity.
"At the funeral in the cathedral, the church was full of the leaders of the city," Archbishop Sako recalled. "The mayor, the head of police, members of the city council and leaders from Kirkuk's religious and political parties were all there. These murders were a tragedy, but I think they can be an opportunity to push forward the dialogue of peace between Christians and Muslims."
Jeff Gardner is based in