WASHINGTON (BP)--Declaring that Christians are rapidly becoming "extinct" in Iraq and other Middle East countries, a worldwide group of 90-plus legislators has called on President Obama to make protecting them a top priority.
A letter to Obama dated Dec. 21 and signed by 93 legislators from 15 countries stated: "Efforts to help establish and protect that democracy [Iraq] have cost many of our countries dearly, and these sacrifices bear silent witness to the urgency of our desire to work with you to take our mutual efforts to a new level. But it is imperative that the United States takes a leadership role in this regard."
In the early 20th century, the Christian community in the Middle East accounted for nearly 20 percent of the population, but today accounts for only 5 percent -- and the situation is even more critical in Iraq, according to the Institute on Religion and Public Policy, which describes itself as "an international, inter-religious non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring freedom of religion as the foundation for security, stability, and democracy."
The letter and a Dec. 22 press statement expressed grave concern about the effect that extinction of Christian populations in the Middle East would have on the region's stability.
"Christians are rapidly becoming extinct in Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries and this development is not in the interest of peace and stability in this troubled region," the letter said. "A thriving and actively engaged Iraqi Christian community is vital to assuring the future stability of Iraq, and its presence or absence will bear heavily on future prospects for stability throughout the Middle East."
The Christian community in Iraq has been declining numerically for years because of waves of persecution, but the exodus has increased in recent weeks following the murder of 51 Catholics and two priests by a terrorist group. On Dec. 14, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom called on the United States to "redouble its efforts" in helping protect Iraq's persecuted Christian community.
"We do appreciate additional high-level attention and resources devoted to mitigating the ongoing and egregious persecution of Christians and other minority religious communities in Iraq, and wish to convey our pressing interest in assisting with increased efforts to reverse this devastating trend," the letter to Obama said.
Iraq's Christian community "has for centuries served an important stabilizing role both in economic and political terms," the letter noted, and today's severe persecution of Iraqi Christians threatens "not only that ancient community, but the entire foundation of Iraq's civil democracy."
The letter recalled the October 2008 evacuation/exodus of more than 1.5 million people from Mosul after attacks on Christians there and expressed horror over "gruesome accounts of gunmen who have broken into Christian homes to kill civilians, as well as reports of elderly Christians found strangled to death in their own homes."
"It is staggering to think that half of all Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their country since 2003," the letter said. "And the exodus continues with thousands of Iraqi Christians fleeing their country on a weekly basis."
The letter concludes: "The United States has a unique leadership role in furthering the cause of religious freedom in Iraq and the whole of the Middle East. Please be assured of our commitment to assisting in any and all appropriate actions to secure immediate, united, transparent, and lasting relief for Iraq's devastated Christian and other minority religious communities."
Lawmakers signing included U.S. Reps. Chris H. Smith, R.-N.J., Trent Franks, R.-Ariz., and Robert B. Aderholt, R.-Ala.; former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich; and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum. From a spectrum of countries, four legislators from Korea signed the document, for example, along with one from Mexico; 22 from Spain, 13 from Italy; 11 from Ireland; three from Portugal and Hungary; two from Lithuania; and one from Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria.
The full text of the letter and complete list of signers is available at www.religionandpolicy.org.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor and senior writer Mark Kelly. To read previous Baptist Press reports on Christians in Iraq, please go to http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=34256