United Press International UPI
Nov 1 2010

The slaughter of dozens of Iraqi Christians held hostage in a Baghdad
church seized by Islamist insurgents will accelerate the exodus of
a Christian community that is one of the most ancient in the world.

The flight of Iraq's dwindling Christian minority began several years
ago when they became the target of Islamist militants like al-Qaida.

Hundreds were killed or driven from their ancestral lands.

The seizure of the Our Lady of Deliverance church in Baghdad, one of
the city's main Roman Catholic places of worship, Sunday evening marked
a sharp escalation in the campaign to drive out Iraq's Christians,
caught between majority Shiite and minority Sunni Muslims.

Some 120 people were taken hostage during Sunday services. On Monday,
Iraqi anti-terrorist forces stormed the church, one of six bombed in
August 2004.

Maj. Gen. Hussein Ali Kamal, the deputy interior minister, said at
least 52 people, including a priest, were killed in the final shootout.

It wasn't clear whether the captives were killed by militants but
Christian member of parliament Younadem Kana said, "What we know is
that most of them were killed when the security forces started to
storm the church."

A statement posted on a militant Web site late Sunday, allegedly by
the Islamic State in Iraq, claimed responsibility for seizing the
church, which it called "the dirty den of idolatry." ISI is linked
to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Iraq's Christian communities -- the Assyrians and Chaldeans, along
with smaller numbers of Armenians and others -- have practiced their
faith since the days of Jesus Christ.

The Assyrian Church of the East, for instance, was established in A.D.

33 by St. Thomas. The Assyrian Apostolic Church was founded a year
later and can trace its origins to St. Peter.

Times were tough under the tyrannical Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, but
even in 1987 a census listed 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today, an
estimated 700,000 remain, mainly on the Nineveh Plain north of Baghdad.

As many as 600,000, and probably more, have fled since the insurgency
erupted following the March 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam.

But the trickle became a flood after Islamist extremists began
systematically car-bombing churches in August 2004 and accusing
Christians of collaborating with the Americans.

But Iraq's Christians aren't the only ones on the run. Across the
Middle East, and indeed in the wider Muslim world as far east as
Indonesia, Christians are in retreat and often under fire.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, reputed to be Jesus' birthplace,
Christians once comprised 85 percent of the population. They're now
20 percent.

Land belonging to Arab Christians, along with other Palestinians,
is seized by Israel in the name of security, then handed over to
Jewish settlers.

Britain's liberal Guardian newspaper reported Thursday that the
emigration of Christians from the Middle East "has accelerated in
the last 15 years to the point where there is a real prospect of
Christians disappearing from some parts of the cradle of Christianity."

In Egypt, Iran, Turkey, Jordan and the Arab states in North African
Christian communities are fighting for survival.

In Lebanon, where Maronite Catholics were deemed the majority when
the French left in 1943 and which was the only Arab nation to have
a Christian head of state, Christians are leaving in droves as the
Iranian-backed Shiites of Hezbollah grow in power and run a virtual
state within a state.

Christians lived in what is now called the Arab world before Islam
took root in the seventh century. They have survived massacres and
persecution over the centuries.

But the demise of secular movements in the region and the growing
influence of political Islam, as evidenced in its most violent form
by al-Qaida, is driving out the last remnants.

"The last prominent Christians -- Tariq Aziz, a Chaldean and Saddam's
foreign minister for many years, and Hanan Ashrawi, Yasser Arafat's
education minister -- have vanished from the political stage in the
Middle East," Der Spiegel recently noted.

Last week, Iraq's supreme court sentenced Aziz, Saddam's PR man who
sought to justify his murderous excesses, to be hanged for "his role
in the elimination of Islamic parties," the majority Shiites.

From: A. Papazian