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For Iraqi Christians, Fear is Knocking
By Joe Sterling and Jomana Karadsheh

(CNN) -- She lives in a paralyzing state of "constant and fear" and it's forcing her to keep her children indoors and out of school.

That's how one Baghdad woman describes the dire predicament faced by her and other Iraqi Christians, a dwindling community that is enduring another string of anti-Christian sectarian assaults in Baghdad and in Mosul.

The woman, who didn't want to be identified because of fear for her life, said security hasn't been beefed up since the assaults began on October 31, when the Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral, or Our Lady of Salvation Church, was attacked.

"We only have God," said the woman, who lost a family member in the church attack. "God is the only one watching over us."

Her words reflect the fears across the world of the ancient Iraqi Christian community, a people that numbered 1.4 million people in 2003, before the war in Iraq, and is estimated to now be only 500,000, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said.

USCIRF, a U.S. government agency that listed the numbers in its 2010 report, said Christian leaders are warning that the result of this decline could signal "the end of Christianity in Iraq."

In a country of more than 29 million people, Christians and other minorities are relative specks in a population where 97 percent are Muslim -- 60 to 65 percent Shiite and 32 to 37 percent Sunni, the CIA World Factbook said.

As sectarian violence raged during the war, Iraqis of all religions have fled for other countries. But a disproportionate number of Christians have landed in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, the three main countries of refuge.

Sybella Wilkes, a spokeswoman at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the overall Christian population in Iraq is 1 1/2 to 2 percent. But, she said, the number of Christians registered in those three countries are 11 to 15 percent of the overall population of Iraqi refugees.

The UNHCR says on its website that the total number of Iraqi refugees in the world stood at nearly 1.78 million in January.

David Nona, chairman of the Chaldean Federation of America, says the news is "getting worse" and he is hearing and reading about a siege mentality among his fellow Christians in Iraq -- not going outside and not opening the door for people, for example.

"People are truly terrified," said Nona, whose Chaldean community in the Detroit area -- about 140,000 or so people -- has hosted an influx of about 25,000 Chaldo-Assyrians over the past three years.

Nona said many people who have been able to flee over the years have had the wherewithal to do so and those who remain might not have the means and connections to get out. The people there not only live in fear, but they can't work or send their children to school. And people of marrying age can't find partners.

There have been proposals for special regions for minorities, such as an autonomous region in the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, where many Christians live. The three-province Kurdish regional government has welcomed Christians.

But for many, Nona says, there's "no hope."

"It is very ironic that the last legacy of this war in Iraq, which was intended to change hearts and minds in the Arab and Islamic world toward the West is bringing about the extinction of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world," he said.

"Right now, we are facing an existential problem."

Nona believes that the political stalemate in Iraq since elections in March has affected the sectarian violence. Kurds, Shiite and Sunni Arab lawmakers have been working to salvage a power-sharing agreement and a new government is in the process of formation.

"Right now, the fact is, there has not been a government. There is no control. There is no security. Americans are leaving. The terrorists want to remind the government and the world that the situation is not as secure as the administration and media would like it to be," he said.

"A lot of people think the Iraq war has been won and we have won," he said. "That's the farthest from the truth."

The Islamic State of Iraq, suspected of ties to al Qaeda in Iraq, claimed responsibility for the church attack, and many religious, ethnic and political factors could be at play in the violence.

Anti-Christian sentiment has flared up amid the sectarian hatreds in Iraq. Christians, who have interacted well with Muslims in years past, have been seen as pro-Western and their businesses, such as liquor stores, had to be closed.

Like many in the Iraqi Christian diaspora, Waiel Hindo, director of administration and finance in IT services at the University of Chicago, follows the developments about his fellow Christians in Iraq.

He said the minute he heard the news, he thought that militants possibly could have been reacting to the Quran-burning threat by a pastor in Florida.

That threat was called off in September, but it inflamed many people in the Muslim world.

"Anytime someone insults one religion, the other religion retaliates," Hindo said.

Nona believes security forces guarding the Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral may have played a role in allowing the attack since many checkpoints were set up at the church. Hindo believes security was relaxed.

"Not in my wildest dreams did I think they were going to go to that church," said Hindo, who noted that churches are many times soft targets and Christians don't carry guns. Nona pointed out that Christians don't have militias as Muslim groups do.

The attacks that started in Baghdad have spread to the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in Nineveh province. In the latest attack, police said, a bomb attached to a vehicle killed a man and his 6-year-old daughter in Mosul on Tuesday.

This posed a problem for the Baghdad woman living in fear. She wanted to go to Mosul where her sister lives.

But her sister called, told her about the latest attacks targeting the community, and advised her not to come.


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