Beirut, Lebanon -- Christians continue to flee Iraq because of religious persecution, even as some Iraqi church leaders are calling on their compatriots to return home.
The church leaders fear that Iraq will become emptied of Christians if the mass exodus continues, leading some of them to issue calls to return that have angered refugees.
"The Muslims of Daura are calling on Christians to come back," the Chaldean bishop of Baghdad, Monsignor Andraos Abouna, told Newsmax in an exclusive interview in Beirut this week.
The Daura neighborhood of Baghdad has been the scene of mass persecution of Christians since the U.S.-led liberation of Iraq in 2003. Churches have been fire-bombed, homes torched, and Christians ordered by Muslim groups to leave their property and flee for their lives or convert to Islam.
Despite the pattern of Muslim violence, Bishop Abouna claimed that the security situation has changed dramatically, thanks to the surge in U.S. troop presence and the recent appearance in his neighborhood of Iraqi troops.
"At the beginning, it was utter chaos," he told Newsmax. "After the Americans came, there was no government, no army, no police. The borders were open. So whoever is strong can kill anyone."
Recently, however, the Iraqi government has allowed his diocese to hire private guards to protect the Baghdad churches. "They are all Christians, and they control access. The government pays for them. They are like ordinary police, but they are not in the police force."
Abouna says he hopes that as the recent refugees saw the security improvements, they would decide to come back. "We hope they will choose to do so."
While Abouna was visiting Lebanon, a priest from the Chaldean patriarchy in Lebanon delivered a tougher version of the same message to the faithful at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the Boushriqeh neighborhood of Beirut, a slum where Iraqi Christians live crammed into tiny apartments they rent for $200 per month.
"You must return to Iraq," he said on the Sunday before Lent. "You never should have come here. Priests died for Iraq. You should have stayed in Iraq," he said.
Rana Ramzi al-Sayigh, 30, is the mother of three small children. She is also the widow of a bodyguard who was murdered when Muslim terrorists attacked the convoy of a bishop, Farraj Rahho of Mosul, last February.
"I was angry when I heard [the message to return]. Everybody was angry," she tells Newsmax during a visit to her tiny apartment, not far from the church. "I have lost my husband. Does that priest want us all to become widows?"
She says that the Iraqi government gave her a widow's pension of $85 per month, just enough to pay rent in a refugee housing complex, not enough for food. With three children to take care for, she could not work outside the home. "Is this priest saying that the church will support us?" she asks.
Rana counts herself among the lucky ones -- she had just learned that the U.S. authorities had approved her family's immigration visas. They were preparing to leave for the United States where she has an uncle in Detroit.
Majid Slaiwa Karomeh, 36, was less lucky. He fled to Beirut recently with his wife and their six small children, after being shot in the shoulder in September.
He and a brother worked as sewage truck drivers for Kellogg Brown Root, an American engineering company, in Baghdad. They were ambushed just as they were leaving a protected area.
Majid's brother was killed instantly.
A few days before he spoke to Newsmax in Beirut, thieves entered the small apartment where the family of eight was living and found the suitcase where he had hidden their life's savings -- around $1,400.
He asked the local priests what he should do. They advised him not to report the theft to the authorities, because he was an illegal alien.
"If he reported the theft, we were afraid he could be arrested because he had overstayed his visa," said Michel Kasdano, an aid to Bishop Michel Kassarji, the Chaldean Bishop of Beirut.
To help Majid and his family get over their immediate crisis, the Bishop personally gave him some money, and told him to return in two days when the weekly meeting of the diocesan charity committee.
"I have 1,200 families to care for," Bishop Kassarji told Newsmax. "Some 6,000 souls. We have so few resources, but it is our job to do what we can."
By Kenneth R. Timmerman