The situation for Christians in Iraq is becoming bleaker. The violence directed against them is no longer limited to the capital city Baghdad, but has been spreading throughout the country.
Two Christian men were killed Nov. 15 in the northern city of Mosul, about 250 miles northwest of Baghdad. The men were shot as they sat in the living room of their home.
The latest wave of violence began Oct. 31 when Muslim extremists massacred more than 50 worshipers in Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation. Bombings of Christian homes around the city quickly followed as part of what some Church officials and other analysts describe as a concerted effort to erase the ancient Christian footprint from the nation.
Father Firas Benoka, a Syrian priest in Mosul, said Nov. 16 that at least five Christians have been killed in Mosul and Baghdad in recent days. Some were murdered in their homes while others were victims of car bombs.
A report from Italy's Catholic Avvenire newspaper placed the death toll of Iraqi Christians in recent days at seven.
"There is a climate of terror that fills the Christian homes not only in Mosul and Baghdad, but also those on the plain of Nineveh," Fr. Benoka told CNA of the mood in the country.
The plain of Nineveh, where Mosul is located, is one of the ancient cradles of Catholicism. The towns and villages that dot the plain are home to some of the world’s original Christian communities, dating back nearly 2,000 years to the dawn of Christianity.
These communities have been the target of numerous attacks in recent years. In February, five family members of a priest were killed in their Mosul home. Separate bombings of buses carrying Christian students to the University of Mosul took place in both May and August, with many casualties.
Kidnappings and killings of Christians have become almost routine in the city.
Experience has proven that all Christians are vulnerable. In February 2008, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul's Chaldean Catholic rite was kidnapped and killed. In 2005, the current Syrian Catholic Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul was kidnapped, but released after one day in captivity.
Archbishop Casmoussa told CNA in an e-mail interview that the situation on the ground in Iraq today is "tense."
Christians, he said, feel like "hostages of fear," he said.
But there are glimmers of hope and reconciliation.
Muslim and Christian leaders in the city of Irbil issued a joined statement Nov. 12 condemning the anti-Christian violence. Mullahs, or spiritual leaders, representing both main Muslim factions, the Sunni and the Shiite, have promised to use their pulpits to invite people "to be instruments of peace and fraternity rather than violence."
Islamic extremists such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq, which claimed responsibility for the attacks on the Our Lady of Salvation, are directly responsible for attacks. But Archbishop Casmoussa said these groups are able to operate with impunity because Iraq’s government has been in discord.
Recent efforts to form a unity government among rival factions in the country remain fragile. Yet many hope that the efforts will lead to better security that will stem the violence and the resulting emigration that afflict the country's Christians.
In his opening speech to Iraq’s House of Representatives Nov. 11, newly elected Speaker Qusay al-Suhail, declared the security of the Christian community a top priority. He openly deplored the killings at the cathedral and Christian homes in Baghdad.
Archbishop Casmoussa welcomes the new expressions of concern.
“In terms of declarations, we are really saturated,” he said. “What we are asking for are concrete actions. We must find a solution, solutions, effective ways to safeguard the security of Christians.”
The archbishop suggested that Christians might be granted their own “separate autonomous geographic region, with international budgetary and infrastructural guarantees, especially for security.”
The Iraqi government since 2005 has recognized an autonomous region for the Kurdish people. It is located in northern Iraq, along the borders with Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
The archbishop wants to stem the tide of Christians exiting Iraq. But he acknowledged that the violence and uncertainty are the main causes of emigration.
"Things must not be left to fester in such a way that Christians leave their country," he said.
One Syrian Orthodox leader, Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, who is based in London, received attention earlier in November for encouraging emigration of Christians from Iraq. Archbishop Dawood told CNN that he advised Christians to “escape the premeditated ethnic cleansing."
"This," he said, "is better than having them killed one by one."
Archbishop Casmoussa said Archbishop Dawood does not speak for Christians in Iraq. “He does not live in Iraq … ”
Archbishop Casmoussa asked for assistance from the international community to ensure the safety of Iraqis and stop the mass emigration. He specifically uged international companies doing business in Iraq to push for greater human rights protections and to use their economic clout to put pressure on the Iraqi and U.S. governments.
He is also calling on the Iraqi government to investigate and bring the terrorists to justice.
If they do not, he said, the United Nations must step in.
Until the perpetrators of this religious violence are brought to justice, Archbishop Casmoussa said, "Christians will not feel safe. The hemorrhage of emigration and violence will continue to undermine the Christian presence in Iraq and it will be disaster for Christians."