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 CNS Story:

IRAQ-CHRISTIANS Aug-3-2006 (510 words) With photo. xxxi

Half of all Christians have fled Iraq since 2003, says Baghdad bishop

By Simon Caldwell
Catholic News Service

LONDON (CNS) -- Half of all Iraqi Christians have fled their country since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, said the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad.

Chaldean Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Andreos Abouna of Baghdad said that before the invasion there were about 1.2 million Christians in the predominantly Shiite Muslim state. Since then the overall number has dropped to about 600,000, he said.

"What we are hearing now is the alarm bell for Christianity in Iraq," the bishop said. "When so many are leaving from a small community like ours, you know that it is dangerous -- dangerous for the future of the church in Iraq."

The bishop said 75 percent of Christians from Baghdad had fled the capital to escape the almost daily outbreaks of sectarian violence.

Since the beginning of the war, the number of Chaldean Catholics, who make up the country's most numerous Christian denomination, had dropped below half a million from 800,000, he said. Many sought new lives mostly in the neighboring countries of Syria, Jordan and Turkey, he added.

Bishop Abouna said he thought it was unlikely that many of those who had emigrated would return.

Bishop Abouna spoke Aug. 1 from Iraq with Aid to the Church in Need UK, a Catholic charity that supports the Chaldean Catholic community in Iraq. Since he became the auxiliary bishop of Baghdad, Bishop Abouna has regularly updated the charity on the community's situation.

About 97 percent of the country's total 27 million Iraqis are Shiite and Sunni Muslims; Christians make up the majority of the remaining 3 percent. The Chaldean Catholics speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

Christians were not being targeted by terrorists any more than other groups, said Bishop Abouna, but the faithful nonetheless felt especially isolated and vulnerable as their numbers dwindled.

He added that many Christians remaining in Iraq were either too poor, old or sick to leave. Priests and religious were also experiencing continuing difficulties in trying to minister to them, he said.

"It is not easy for them (the priests)," the bishop said. "When they want to travel to other parts of Baghdad, they have to be very careful.

"They are doing their best to contact the families and bring them to church," he said.

Many people were unnerved by the lack of security and confidence in the political process that was supposed to usher in a new era of peace, democracy and rule of law following the removal of President Saddam Hussein by coalition forces, Bishop Abouna said.

"The constitution and the political developments of the past 18 months or so have not helped at all," the bishop said. "It is just a theory.

"Everyone is asking: when will the violence stop? They want to rest. They cannot live like this -- every day there are these terrible things," said Bishop Abouna.

He said the only thing keeping people going was hope because "the country is rich but lacking stability. Once the stability returns, the country will rise up again."


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