CHURCH leaders world wide have expressed concern for Christians in Iraq and Egypt during the lead-up to parliamentary elections in both countries later this year.
Iraqi and Egyptian Christians fear for their safety after a number of sectarian killings over the past two months. Many believe they are being deliberately targeted.
Pope Benedict XVI expressed his “deep sorrow” over the recent deaths of Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, and emphasised his solidarity through “prayer and affection” with “those suffering the consequence of violence”.
The Pope’s words were described by the Bishop in Cyprus & the Gulf, the Rt Revd Michael Lewis, as a “timely” response to the “tragic reports of the murderous actions of anti-Christian elements”.
Eight Christians have been killed in Mosul over recent weeks. In one incident, armed militiamen broke into the home of a 59-year-old man and shot him and his two adult sons. In another incident, an engineering student at Mosul University was shot dead, and his friend was wounded.
In a separate attack on a house in the city, the charity Open Doors says that five people were killed when gunmen “forced themselves into the house and gunned down an entire family. They even threw two bodies outside the house as a cruel warning for others.”
So many frightened Christians are now leaving Mosul that the Chaldean Archbishop, Mar Emil Shimoun Nona, has warned of a “humanitarian emergency” in the region. “The situation is dramatic,” he said, and his Church was giving emergency aid, because “the people fled without taking anything with them.” The Archbishop expressed fears that soon Mosul would be “emptied completely of Christians”.
One Western diplomat said that hundreds of Christians were abandoning the city and seeking safety in Christian villages on the plains of Nineveh. Eyewitnesses described an “atmosphere of panic” as those who remained shut their shops or businesses and retreated into their homes. Armed Christian militia are patrolling some of the surrounding villages.
Bishop Lewis said that the events of recent weeks had placed the Christian clergy, in particular, in a dilemma: “They are torn between accepting offers of extensive, visible security, and keeping a low profile.”
Many Christians believe that the killings are part of a systematic attempt to intimidate their minority community before this weekend’s parliamentary elections.
Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, there were believed to be about 20,000 Christians in Mosul; today, just under half that number remain. Church leaders fear that Christians are being caught up in a power struggle between Muslims and Kurds as they contest the oil-rich areas in the north.
In a joint statement, the Archbishops of the Roman Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, and Chaldean Churches condemned the Baghdad government for failing to prevent the killings in Mosul, and called on its members “fully [to] assume their responsibility to work for the security of citizens, especially for the faithful of the Christian minority, who are the most vulnerable and most peaceful of all”.
Bishop Lewis also expressed the hope that “the government that emerges from the election will make the security of religious communities, both people and property, a top priority.”
Christians in Egypt are also bracing themselves for possible violence in the run-up to elections in May, which, the eight-million-strong Coptic community fears, may heighten sectarian tensions.
In early January, six Copts were killed while leaving a church after mass on Coptic Christmas Eve. Relatives of the victims had little doubt that the deaths were politically motivated. “Some parliamentary candidates we have not supported in the past are trying to intimidate us into not voting this year,” the cousin of one of the victims said. “They are creating tensions in order to step in at a later time and resolve it and win us over on their side.”
The killings took place against a backdrop of sectarian discrimination. Copts form ten per cent of the Egyptian population, but the government routinely refuses to issue permits necessary for the legal construction of churches.