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Christians besieged in Iraq

By Frances Harrison
Religious affairs correspondent

Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho at the Vatican, November 2007
The archbishop was abducted minutes after leading prayers

Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho is thought to be the highest-ranking Chaldean Catholic clergyman to be killed in the violence in Iraq.

He was the Archbishop of Mosul which, along with Baghdad, has been one of the worst places for attacks on Christians.

For the Christians still remaining in Mosul the reaction may very well be that this death is neither the first nor likely to be the last.

The Barnabas Fund, a charity in the UK that has tried to help Iraqi Christians, says there have been some very nasty cases of Christians being abducted, tortured and then killed and it says many Christians in Iraq are now deadened to the violence.

Bombs

But on the other hand the Archbishop was very high-profile and that will have a shock value.

What might make a difference to the reaction to this news is whether the Archbishop, who was elderly, just died of the stress of being kidnapped or was actively tortured and murdered. He was reported to be on medication for heart problems. Exactly how he died is not clear yet.

But his death is the latest in a string of attacks on churches, priests and lay Christians.

In January, bombs exploded outside three Chaldean and Assyrian churches in Mosul, two churches in Kirkuk and four in Baghdad.

The attacks seem to have been co-ordinated all over the country to occur at roughly the same time. And this was not the first time violence had come close to Archbishop Rahho.

Iraqi refugees waiting for aid in Syria, 11 February 2008
Christian refugees may now be more reluctant to return to Iraq

Last June, his secretary, a priest called Ragheed Ganni, was shot dead in his church along with three of his companions.

In 2005 the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Basile Georges Casmoussa, was kidnapped but released.

And in 2006, an Orthodox priest, Boulos Iskander, was snatched off the streets of Mosul by a group that demanded a ransom. Even though it was paid by his family they still beheaded him. Worse still, when his body was found, the priest's arms and legs had also been cut off.

Money motive

In many cases the motivation behind attacks on Christians is religious - to drive the minority out of Iraq. But very often criminal groups or bandits pretend to belong to a jihadist group in order to mask their true motive - which is money.

Christians are regarded as having money and they are known to sacrifice everything to pay ransom demands - partly because, unlike Shia or Sunni, they do not have powerful tribal or militia links to protect them, so they are a soft target.

It's thought about half the Christian population of Iraq has moved - the majority to Syria, fewer to Jordan and some to northern Iraq

In the university of Mosul, there are reports of Christian students being targeted - with notices being put up warning the girls to wear a hijab and giving Christians a choice between dying, converting to Islam or leaving the town.

A year ago there were also reports of a push to drive Christians out of the historically Christian suburb of Dora in southern Baghdad, with some Muslims accusing the Christians of being allies of the Americans.

Exodus

The charity Barnabas says one of its partners in Iraq conducted research into 250 Iraqi Christians displaced to the north of the country a year ago and found nearly half had witnessed attacks on churches or Christians, or been personally targeted by violence.

Nobody knows how many of Iraq's Christians have now fled. Before the war there were estimated to be about 800,000 and Chaldeans were the largest Christian community in Iraq.

It is thought about half the Christian population of Iraq has moved - the majority to Syria, fewer to Jordan and some to northern Iraq.

Of the 1.5m Iraqi refugees in Syria it is assumed around 20% are Christian, but firm figures are hard to come by.

That means, as a proportion, Christians are massively over-represented in the Iraqi refugee population.

Syrian churches have been helping the refugees and say they speak of being forced to convert to Islam or flee, women being told to wear Islamic dress and those who sell alcohol for communion being beaten.

The killing of the archbishop of Mosul and the spate of bomb blasts against churches in January may well put off those Christian refugees in Syria who were contemplating returning to their country, even if it does not trigger a new exodus from Iraq.



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