Christians Still Fleeing Violence in Iraq

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Iraq has lost more than half the Christians who once called the country home, mostly since the war began, and few who fled have plan to return, according to a new U.S. Report.

Pope Benedict XVI called attention to their plight during a visit to the Middle East last week, urging the international community to ensure the survival of "the ancient Christian community of that noble land."

The number of Arab Christians has plummeted across the region in recent years as increasing numbers seek to move to the West, saying they feel increasingly unwelcome  and want a better life abroad. But the exodus has been particularly stark in Iraq, where sectarian violence since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion has often targeted Christians.

The last official Iraqi census in 1987 showed almost 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Now, a U.S. State Department report says that number may have dropped to close to one-third of that-- as few as 500,000.

Signs of the exodus can be seen in the empty pews inside St. Joseph's church in the middle-class Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah.  Father Mario Ebararan is the preist.

"Why do all Iraqi Christians want to leave to go abroad? They want to leave because the situation is too difficult here in Iraq," he said.  "Life is so difficult here. No jobs, problems in the streets. There is fear among Christians."

Under Saddam Hussein, Christians in Iraq could became doctors, engineers, land owners and civil servants. Today, they face descrimination from the present government, but it was the terrorist violence after the fall of saddam in 2003 that created a flood of Christians leaving the country.

"The situation was very insecure," said Christian resident Saad Adwar.  "There was no protection for us, a matter that led to so many of us emigrating from Iraq. So many Christians were killed and targeted."

In March of last year, the body of Mosul's Chaldean Archbishop was found in a shallow grave after he was kidnapped. Last week the body of a 5-year-old Christian child kidnapped a week earlier was found by police.

Many Iraqi Christians have now settled in Jordan. Feryal Yashou is a former resident of Baghdad.  

"In the meantime, it's impossible," he said.  "It's very hard, despite their saying the security situation is getting better. But for us as Christians it will never be safe."

As a result, few Iraqi Christians contemplate going back, according to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.

"There is prevalent violence, human rights violations and persecution of people for different reasons, for religious reasons, for political reasons, and so on," said UNHCR spokesman William Spindler.  "So Christians, as well as other ethnic and religious minorities, are at particular risk in Iraq."

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