Scene of a bomb blast outside an Assyrian Christian church in Iraq
Hundreds of thousands of Assyrian Christians, a minority people who live principally in northern Iraq, have fled the country under murderous threats from Islamic militants that have grown so bad, a U.S. government entity has now labeled Iraq "among the most dangerous places on earth."
In a report released today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a federally-funded advisory team created and appointed by Congress, recommends that Iraq be designated a "country of particular concern" in light of ongoing, severe abuses against the country's religious minorities – stating that the situation is "particularly dire" for ChaldoAssyrian Christians.
"The lack of effective government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities," said USCIRF's chairperson, Felice D. Gaer.
In the first century, Assyrians were among the first Gentiles to follow Christ, and to this day many Assyrian Christians still speak Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. They are also the people of ancient Nineveh, the city that was visited by the biblical prophet Jonah and that lies today near the modern city of Mosul, Iraq.
Nina Shea, a Washington, a member of the USCIRF, explained that following the onset of the Iraq war, many Assyrian Christians returned to Mosul seeking refuge.
"They want to escape persecution from southern points, like Basrah and Baghdad," Shea told ChristianWeek.
For Iraq's battered Christian community, Shea said, "Mosul in the north was the last refuge within Iraq."
In recent months, however, the city of Mosul has become a hotbed of religious persecution from Islamic militants.
In October, Christians in Mosul protested a change to Iraqi law that stripped minority groups of representation – only to be met with a fierce and violent backlash.
Carl Hetu, national secretary of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada, reported to ChristianWeek, "What we've heard from people in the field is that each person identified as Christian has received a letter telling them: 'You leave Mosul and Iraq, or you will be killed.'"
The threats are neither new nor empty: Since 2003, the International Herald Tribune reports, over 25 churches across Iraq have been bombed, several priests have been abducted and beheaded, nuns have been stabbed and a 14-year-old boy was even crucified near Mosul.
"The situation continues to grow grimmer for the targeted minority Christian community in Iraq, especially in Mosul," Carl Moeller, head of Open Doors USA, an organization that serves the persecuted Church, told Christian Today. "The marginalized people of Iraq desperately need our support."
In Mosul, a flurry of fulfilled threats – reports tell of 2 women killed, 15 Christians assassinated at once and a wave of violence that left 25 dead in October alone – have sent thousands of Assyrian Christians families to flight again.
Hetu's Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada, or CNEWA-Canada, estimates 400,000 Christians have fled Iraq since the start of the war, though a surge of refugees following the violence in Mosul may have pushed that number even higher.
Ken Joseph Jr., director of the Assyrian Christian Assistance Center in Baghdad, estimates there are now nearly 500,000 Assyrian Christians living as refugees in neighboring Jordan and Syria.
For those who have fled, however, there may be hope of returning.
The Iraqi government is now offering displaced Christian families financial assistance to return, reports the McClatchy-Tribune News Service, and security forces in Mosul have been boosted by 35,000 officers.
"If we can get a little support to do the survey of the people," Joseph told WND, "and get their name, Iraqi Social Security Number and hometown, we can qualify them for monthly support from the Iraqi Oil fund as well as [thousands] per family to return home."
Despite widespread fears and skepticism that government security forces can actually protect Christians from Islamic extremists, several groups are urging the international community to help the Assyrian Christians return home.
Hetu told ChristianWeek that the Iraqi Christians are indispensible to the future of Chrisitianity as a bridge to spreading the faith and spreading peace in the Middle East.
"That's where Jesus started off, where the Apostles sacrificed so much," Hetu said. "They are our voice between the East and the West."
A fund has been set up by the Assyrian Christian Assistance Center's Ken Joseph to help support the refugees with basic needs and to register them for the return home to Iraq.
"The Assyrian Christians desperately need our help," says Joseph. "Stuck in the middle of the Iraqi War, they are in a no man's land - unable to move forward and unable to return home."