An assault on a church in Baghdad and other targeted attacks on Christian families are driving fear into the hearts of the remaining members of this religious minority in Iraq, and causing many to seek sanctuary in other places.
"None of the Iraqi Christians want to leave their homeland, because that's their home and they want to stay there. They're leaving because they have to," said Susan Dakak, a board member with Iraqi Christians in Need, a Knoxville, Tenn.-based organization that seeks to help the Christian community in Iraq.
The main focus of the organization has become helping Christians resettle, whether it is in the United States -- Knoxville is hosting a growing Iraqi Christian community -- or other countries, such as Turkey and Syria, she said. Families also are seeking refuge in northern Iraq, where Kurdish security forces are in control.
Violence against Christians is on the rise, Dakak said. On Oct. 31, gunmen stormed Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, killing at least 58 people. Al-Qaida took responsibility for the attack.
About 350 people in the Syriac Catholic community regularly attended Sunday mass at the church, but many have left the area or are too scared to go to mass, the Washington Post reported. The Syriac Catholic Church is one of the Eastern Catholic Churches affiliated with Rome.
Dakak recalled that day. "We suddenly started getting e-mails from people about what was happening," she said. Office workers located next to the church could hear the explosions and communicated to her organization throughout the four-hour ordeal.
After the siege, two men were killed in Christian homes in Mosul. And Christian families mourning the deaths of relatives in the Oct. 31 attack became victims of car bombs themselves, CNN reported:
"Iraqi Christians are not enemies of anybody," said Dakak, who was born in Baghdad and immigrated to the United States in 1978. "They don't think that anybody is their enemy, so therefore they're not equipped to defend themselves. They don't have any kind of militia, they don't carry guns, they're just living there, trying to carry on their day and their lives as normal as possible."
But "in the last few years, there have been a lot of reported as well as unreported bombs that were targeting just the Christians," she said. "There has been a public warning toward Christians to leave Iraq from al-Qaida."
Al-Qaida is targeting Christians knowing it will get a great deal of attention in the West, said Charles Sennott, executive editor and vice president of GlobalPost and author of "The Body and the Blood: The Middle East's Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace."
"I think al-Qaida's making a very strategic effort here to isolate and terrorize the Christian minority of Iraq knowing full well that that is a chord that will strike very loudly in the West and the United States and the other NATO allies that have participated in the coalition," said Sennott.
"When you speak to Christians of the Arab world, they will tell you that they are very proud of their tradition of Arab nationalism and that they see Muslims as their brothers. And they always seem to find that common ground that they are in this together as Iraqis," he said. "What al-Qaida is trying to do is to strike right at the heart of that feeling between Christians from Iraq and the Muslim majority that's in Iraq. They're trying to create divisions."
Christian leaders are warning that the spike in violence might mean "the end of Christianity in Iraq," according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2010 annual report. Only about half the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community remains in Iraq.
Even before the latest attacks, about 10-15 percent of Iraqis registering for assistance with the U.N. refugee agency are Christian -- much higher than their proportion of the Iraqi population, which is about 2 percent, said Andrew Harper, head of the Iraq Support Unit at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Iraqis can register with UNHCR for help entering another country, such as Syria and Jordan, and assistance with food, health care and education, said Harper.
In about a month, he said, the agency will be able to tell if there's a spike in Christians leaving Iraq as a direct result of the recent bombings, because it will take time for them to get visas and organize their assets.
"No one wants to leave their country, so they will try and remain as long as they can," Harper added. "There also have been a couple of specific threats by al-Qaida-linked groups that Christians are legitimate targets, and that no doubt has led to increased anxiety within the community."
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Iraqi government is doing little to help and "continues to commit and tolerate severe abuses of freedom of religion or belief, particularly against the members of Iraq's smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities -- Chaldo-Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis."
The State Department's International Religious Freedom annual report for 2010 describes incidents of discrimination against Christians in government hiring.
Iraqi law says ministries are allotted to different groups and parties, but Christians don't have any ministries, explained Dakak. For example, Christian doctors in Iraq wouldn't be able to work for the Ministry of Health, because they're not members of the Shiite party that controls that ministry, she said.
"So it's been very hard for Iraqi Christians to survive, even under normal circumstances," said Dakak. "And now with this new terror, they don't have a life there."
Rather than just helping Iraqi Christians leave the country, the U.S. and international community should pressure the Iraqi government to help provide them more jobs and protection, she said.
"There have been calls for the Iraqi security forces to improve their protection of religious and other minorities," said Harper. "And I'm sure they're trying to do their best, but it's just an extremely difficult situation in Iraq."
France 24 reports on Iraqi refugees finding shelter in Turkey:
By Larisa Epatko