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YEAREND-IRAQ Dec-13-2007 (910 words) With logo posted Dec. 10 and photos posted Dec. 11. xxxi

Strong statements, violence, displacement mark Iraq in 2007

By Regina Linskey
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- For Iraq's Christians, 2007 was marked by increased violence and displacement.

A report released in June by the founder of the Assyrian International News Agency recorded in depth the deaths of Christian children -- including babies -- laypeople, priests and nuns who were burned, beaten or blown up in car bombs throughout the past few years.

The report said al-Qaida terrorists had moved into Dora, a predominantly Christian neighborhood in Baghdad, and had begun enforcing "strict Islamic law" and forcing residents to pay a "jizya," a poll tax once levied on Christians and Jews living in Muslim countries.

On June 3 in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, a Chaldean Catholic priest and his three subdeacons were killed. Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni, the three men, and the wife of one of the men were driving away from a church when their car was blocked by a group of armed militants, who forced the woman out of the car. The militants opened fire on Father Ganni and the three subdeacons, then placed explosives around the car to prevent anyone from retrieving the four bodies.

The deaths evoked strong messages of sympathy from Pope Benedict XVI, who said Iraq's Christians are experiencing an "authentic martyrdom," and Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on International Policy.

In October, the pope called for the release of two priests kidnapped in Iraq. They later were released.

The violence has forced many Christians to leave. More than 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Compared to the prewar percentage of Christians in Iraq, a disproportionate number of all Iraqi refugees are Christian.

Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, Syria, said Iraqi refugees in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan suffer great hardships; many have lost family members, jobs and homes.

"They have no legal protection by law and they are not recognized as refugees," said the bishop, who ministers to approximately 60,000 Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria. "They feel that they can't go home because of the war, and at the same time they can't get a (work) visa."

In July a delegation of church leaders toured Middle Eastern countries that host Iraqi refugees.

Describing the state of the refugees as "a real man-made disaster" and "emergency situation," Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington and a consultant to the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration, expressed concern for the safety of two groups of Iraqi refugees: Christians and those who have worked with the U.S. military or government.

The church leaders returned from their trip urging the United States to cut through bureaucratic tape and open its doors to Iraqis.

In September, a senior U.S. State Department official told the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom that the U.S. has been slow to admit the thousands of Iraqis referred by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The United States has "a moral obligation" to protect Iraqi refugees, "particularly those who belong to persecuted religious minorities, as well as those who have worked closely with the United States government," said Ellen Sauerbrey, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.

The following month, Sauerbrey said that the United States would resettle 12,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of 2007.

Many Iraqi refugees are finding a new home in metropolitan Detroit with the help of the Archdiocese of Detroit. The refugees, many of them Chaldean Catholics, started arriving in the metro area this summer.

And although late in the year, the Iraqi government said that refugees slowly were beginning to return home, Bishop Audo told Catholic News Service that unless security improved in Iraq, the Chaldean diaspora may become permanent. He said the country's Chaldean Catholics were too scared to go home.

During the U.S. bishops' meeting in November, they released a statement saying that some U.S. policymakers "seem to fail to recognize sufficiently the reality and failures in Iraq and the imperative for new directions."

It said the bishops "are convinced that the current situation in Iraq remains unacceptable and unsustainable."

"Our country needs a new direction to reduce the war's deadly toll and to bring our people together to deal with the conflict's moral and human dimensions," it said.

Throughout the year, Pope Benedict reassured Iraqi Christians of the church's solidarity, and he urged material as well as spiritual support.

While meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush in June, the pope expressed concern for the Iraqi Christian minority. Bush said after the meeting that the pope "was concerned that the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion."

"I assured (the pope) we were working hard to make sure" Iraqis would respect "that modern constitution voted on by the people that would honor people from different walks of life and different attitudes," Bush said.

In September, the pope met with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa to discuss the exodus of Iraqis, many of whom have fled to Syria.

But perhaps the strongest signal of solidarity with Iraqis came when Pope Benedict put a red hat on Cardinal Emmanuel-Karim Delly of Baghdad during a Nov. 24 consistory.

The patriarch said the pope told him, "I hope this gesture will be a sign of reconciliation not only among the people, but especially among Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, because Iraq is a country dear to me."


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