VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - With al-Qaeda declaring war on Christians in Iraq and no end to political instability in sight, Catholic experts on the Middle East fear the fate of the minority Christian community there will only worsen.
The pessimism followed the bloodiest attack against Iraq’s Christian minority since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Fifty-two hostages and police were killed on Sunday when security forces stormed a church that had been raided by al-Qaeda-linked gunmen.
The bloodbath struck fear deep into the hearts of remaining Iraqi Christians and confirmed some of the worst concerns of a Vatican summit on the Middle East held last month that warned of a continuing exodus of Christians from the lands of the Bible.
“In Iraq, every attack prompts the exodus of thousands of Christians,” said Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, an Egyptian Jesuit who is one of the Vatican’s leading experts on Islam.
“They say they have no guarantees there. The Shiites have their militias, the Sunnis have their militias and the Kurds have a well-protected autonomous province in the north. The Christians have neither militia nor a region,” Samir said.
Gunmen seized hostages at the Our Lady of Salvation Church, a Syrian Catholic cathedral, during Sunday mass, demanding the release of women they said had converted to Islam but were being detained by the Coptic church in Egypt.
“As the terrorists themselves say, their purpose is to eliminate the Christian presence from those lands either by physically destroying Christians or by terrorizing them into renouncing the faith or fleeing,” said Father David Jaeger, a Franciscan expert on the Holy Land and the Middle East.
Two days after the Baghdad church attack, which Pope Benedict condemned as ferocious because it took place in a house of God, the al-Qaeda front in Iraq said Christians were “legitimate targets” wherever they are.
The group, which calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), ridiculed the pope as “the hallucinating tyrant of the Vatican” and warned that Christians would be “extirpated and dispersed” from Iraq.
Iraq’s Christians once numbered 1.5 million out of a total Iraqi population of about 30 million. Church officials believe that hundreds of thousands have either left the country or been displaced to other parts of the country.
“The militants are trying to drive them out of the large cities like Baghdad and Mosul with attacks ... it’s almost done in Baghdad,” said Samir, the Egyptian Jesuit.
A main theme of a two-week Vatican synod on the Church in the Middle East last month was precisely the fear that war, violence and political instability in the region would accelerate a worrying exodus of faithful from Biblical lands.
It urged Christians not to sell their property even if they fled so they or their children would have a place to return to and also expressed a fear that the rise of political Islam would continue to pose a threat.
During Saddam’s rule, only his Baath party was allowed to exist. The Sunni dictator crushed attempts to establish rival political organizations, and in particular carried out constant campaigns against Islamic parties, but did not target Christians.
But Jaeger, the Franciscan expert, warned against idealizing Saddam’s Iraq.
“Christians were not singled out under Saddam but there was a horribly oppressive and murderous regime for everyone,” he said.
“The irony is that now there are some elements of democracy in Iraq but within this context the Christians specifically appear to be worse off,” he said.
Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris and Michael Christie in Baghdad; editing by Janet McBride.