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Anti-Christian Violence in the Middle East

Chaldean Catholics attend Mass at St. Michael’s Church in El Cajon, Calif. The church community is almost entirely Chaldean and a vast majority are refugees and immigrants from Iraq. (Photo: CNS/David Maung) 

15 Dec 2010 – by Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Violence continued to feed the flow of Christians leaving the Middle East, with church leaders generally agreeing that only peace would solve the problem.

A shocking coda to the violent year was the attack on a Syrian Catholic church in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad Oct. 31. As police moved in to rescue Catholics held hostage by Islamic militants with ties to al-Qaida, 58 people, including two priests, were killed.

At a Dec. 10 memorial Mass in Baghdad for the victims, Syrian Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan referred to the cover-up of “the terror targeting Iraqi Christians.”

“It is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to carry out proper and thorough investigations to uncover the terrorist groups who did plan and finance the carnage, of whatever religious or political allegiance they may be, and to bring them publicly to justice,” he said in his homily.

Some reports indicated that more than half of Iraq’s Christian community, estimated to number 800,000 to 1.4 million before the American-led invasion in 2003, have already left the country. The October incident led to a new wave of flight.

Iraqi officials pledged to protect the Christians, but their pledges were met with skepticism. The British branch of Aid to the Church in Need reported that Iraqi officials were erecting concrete barriers around Christian churches, and police were scanning people as they entered the churches for services.

A December report from a Christian committee for Iraqi refugees in Syria gave the following report about Christians remaining in Iraq: “Their conditions are no longer bearable. The people are living behind locked doors, they are compelled to take long leaves of absence from work, in Mosul and other cities, as a result of the dangers they face at work.

“The universities are almost empty of Christian students, as are the schools. In some of the cities even the streets are almost empty of Christians,” the report said.

“It is as if they are in prison: without work, without study, without church meetings. Fear rules over all situations and in all places,” it added.

A study issued in November by the Jerusalem-based Catholic Aid Coordination Committee reported that Palestinian Christians said they would rather stay in their homeland, if there were enough opportunities for them. Palestinian emigrant communities have long been established in the United States and many Latin American nations, and Iraq’s Chaldean Catholics and Lebanon’s Maronite Catholics have strong enclaves in some major U.S. cities.

Lebanon has the largest estimated percentage of Catholics in the Middle East. Virtually everywhere else, their percentages are in the single digits, and dropping.

But the dwindling number of Christians in Lebanon has some fearing that if a new census were taken — none has been conducted in nearly 80 years — the unique power-sharing arrangement with Muslims in that country would have to be redrawn.

The flow of Catholics from the Middle East was just one of the issued addressed at the Vatican during a two-week Synod of Bishops for the Middle East.

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