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Iraqi Christians Struggle With Fear After Slayings

Recent Priest Killings Follow Years of Violence, Leaders Say

Lamia Sheet looks at the coffin of her husband, the Rev. Youssef Adel, an Assyrian Orthodox priest shot this month.
Lamia Sheet looks at the coffin of her husband, the Rev. Youssef Adel, an Assyrian Orthodox priest shot this month. (Khalid Mohammed - AP)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008; Page A10

BAGHDAD, April 21 -- At the Rev. Thair Abdal's church, where on Sunday mornings sweet songs of prayer stream from the doorway, the congregation's fear of death leaves the sanctuary half-filled.

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"It's very clear," Abdal said. "Like the light of day, you cannot hide it."

Guards with AK-47 assault rifles man the heavy gates outside. Priests remove their black robes and white collars when they travel in the city.

Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically since last year, but members of the country's Christian denominations say they are increasingly under threat.

In March, Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul's Chaldean community, was found dead after being abducted. This month, Youssef Adel, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, was fatally shot in a drive-by attack in Karrada, one of Baghdad's safest neighborhoods and home to Abdal's Holy Catholic Assyrian Church.

Dozens of churches, monasteries and other buildings have been firebombed, looted or occupied by Muslims since June 2004, according to Assyrian church leaders. Christian relief organizations describe the plight of Iraqi Christians as "ethnic cleansing."

Most Christians in Iraq are Chaldeans, members of an Eastern Rite denomination that recognizes the pope's authority. Other sizable denominations include the Assyrian Catholic Church, which traces its roots to the 1st century. Iraqi Christians are also affiliated with the Church of the East, the Anglican Church and other Protestant faiths.

Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush said that in a meeting last week they discussed the "precarious state" of Christian communities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.

The Iraqi Christian population numbered 1.35 million before the Persian Gulf War in 1991, according to politicians who cite government statistics from the time. That number has dropped by at least half, according to politicians, priests and religious organizations, mainly because Christians have fled the country in the years since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Iraqi Christians say they are the victims of kidnappings, harassment on the job and religious suppression by Islamic extremists and criminal opportunists. "The Christians don't have armies," said Joe Obayda, who leads the British-based relief group Iraqi Christians in Need. "They don't have militias and they are not vying for power."

Obayda said many Christians are applying to remain in Jordan and Syria and have lost hope of going home.

"They are stuck. They don't think they can go back," he said. "They don't think it will be secure for them in the foreseeable future."

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