JACKI LYDEN, host:
When Pope Benedict XVI met with President Bush this week, they discussed the persecutions of Christians in Iraq. All religious minorities have suffered in Iraq, but Christians there constitute the world's oldest population. Increasingly, they're terrified.
In February, the archbishop of Mosul was abducted. His body was found later in a shallow grave. Scores of Christians have been targeted and killed. Most recently, an Iraqi priest was killed earlier this month in Baghdad.
This week, a new bipartisan coalition in Congress said it intends to spotlight this issue. The Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East has about 20 members. One of the founders is Congressman Frank Wolf, Republican of Virginia.
Representative FRANK WOLF (Republican, Virginia): I want to respectfully say this because I have great respect for the church, and I certainly don't want to be critical, but the church in the West has not advocated for the Christians who are being persecuted in the Middle East.
LYDEN: The caucus brings together conservatives and liberals. Anna Eshoo is of Armenian and Syrian descent and a Democratic congresswoman from California.
Representative ANNA ESHOO (Democrat, California): Well, I mean, we have very good information from the religious leaders and people throughout the region. There are so few left in Baghdad. They are pushing the faith underground, they're terrified to celebrate mass, and when a silencer is placed to a priest's head, that sends quite a message throughout the community.
LYDEN: As to how many Christians have been displaced in Iraq, the exact number is hard to calculate. Neither the United Nations High Commission for Refugees nor the group Refugees International keep statistics according to religion.
But Eshoo claims that the number of Christians among the 2 million displaced outside Iraq's borders, in neighboring Syria and Jordan, could be as high as almost 60 percent.
Rep. ESHOO: As a result of the displacement, the continuing murdering of priests, very recently Archbishop Paulos Rahho, nuns, the burning of churches and the displacement of Christians and their persecution, we decided that we would launch a caucus very specifically to deal with religious minorities in the Middle East.
We believe that it reflects one of the great American values, and that is that we respect minorities and that they indeed should be protected and not persecuted.
LYDEN: The caucus will look at all threatened religions, including the Baha'i in Iran, and it's had some success already. The last Iraq spending bill included $10 million for minority resettlement from Iraq. There's a new point-person for Iraqi minorities in the State Department, and the caucus will press to resettle more Iraqis in the United States.
Rep. ESHOO: In many ways, they are victims of geography, and that is history repeating itself. Another one to 2 million more refugees have fled to neighboring countries. So there's a great deal of displacement, and the United States has pledged to resettle 12,000 Iraqis in the U.S. this year. But as of January of this year, it's a paltry number.
LYDEN: And while the number of refugees has grown somewhat, many groups have complained of frustratingly slow and overly cautious resettlement procedures. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and Congressman Frank Wolf are founding members of the new Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East. The group held its first hearing yesterday.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.