Iraq's Christians Ask For Protection
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne. Religious tensions are rising on several fronts in the Middle East. In a moment, we'll hear about how age-old frictions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are again being inflamed there. But first we go to Iraq, where hundreds of Christians fled the northern city of Mosul over the past few days. Police say at least eight Christians have been killed in recent weeks. Christian leaders there say they are being systematically targeted and that's causing panic in the Christian community across Iraq. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Late afternoon sun fills St. George's Church in Baghdad. The nave is full of worshipers from many of Iraq's Christian sects: Assyrians, Chaldeans and Catholics. The Anglican Reverend Canon Andrew White, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, addresses his flock.
Reverend Canon ANDREW WHITE (Anglican Reverend): And all of us recognize that this has not been a good week for Christians in Iraq.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Heads bow down. Some faces are creased in pain as Canon White intones.
Rev. WHITE: Heavenly father, we pray for all of our brothers and sisters in Mosul. We are deeply just sad, dear Lord, to hear what has happened in an area we thought were safe. Amen.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraq's beleaguered Christian community is under attack again. There has been a mass exodus of Christians fleeing from Mosul to villages near the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. While security has improved in many parts of Iraq, Mosul has remained a stubborn urban redoubt of the insurgency. In an interview, Canon Andrew White says that he believes the main culprit of the campaign of killing and intimidation of Christians there is al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Rev. WHITE: Well, we knew that there's a very considerable al-Qaeda presence in Mosul now that which was in Baghdad has gone north.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Canon White met last week with the head of the U.S. military in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, and Iraqi government officials to ask for immediate help. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki announced yesterday that he would investigate the spate of attacks. Hundred of Iraqi security forces have been sent in to patrol Christian areas, but from many Christians it's too late. Several have been killed, others have been attacked and as many as a thousand may have run away. While this is the most dramatic push to drive Christians out of their homes, it's hardly the first. Canon White says his church in Baghdad has also suffered.
Rev. WHITE: I've had 89 people in this church killed this year. 89.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraq's Christian community is among the oldest in the world. But after the U.S.-led invasion both Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents targeted them. The Iraqi Christian community was estimated at 800,000 people in 2003. Now, Canon White says they number less than 100,000.
Rev. WHITE: So many have fled. I meet them all around the world. Christians who are Iraqi, they've gone.
(Soundbite of people singing)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the church the congregation sings in the language of Jesus Christ, Aramaic. Nineteen-year-old worshiper Mariam Shamun(ph) says, she too wants to leave Iraq.
Ms. MARIAM SHAMUN (Resident, Iraq): (Through Translator) Frankly speaking, I don't want to stay here. If I had a choice I would choose to leave now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Then she says in broken English.
Mr. SHAMUN: I want to visit America. Yeah, yeah.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she fears there will be no more Christians left in Iraq.
Ms. SHAMUN: (Through Translator) Christianity here is just about collapsing and eventually it will collapse. So many of us went abroad and many others were killed. All of us are living in fear.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Canon White says he can offer his community little comfort.
Rev. WHITE: All I can say to them is I can't guarantee anything. I can't guarantee that we will not be killed this week, so I've got no assurance for here on Earth. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.