American bishops urge Condoleezza Rice to establish a safe haven in Iraq for hundreds of thousands of Christians fleeing gruesome persecution at the hands of Islamist fanatics
BY SIMON CALDWELL
SOARING violence against Christians in Iraq including the alleged crucifixion of a teenage boy in Basra has prompted the Catholic Church to call for a safe haven to protect minority groups as the country slides toward civil war.
The American Catholic bishops have also asked US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to grant asylum to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians who have fled their homes to escape persecution by Islamists.
They told her that they were deeply alarmed by the "rapidly deteriorating situation of Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq".
The report of the crucifixion was carried by the Catholic Assyrian International News Agency (AIN) and another agency covering religious affairs, Asia News.
The leputtS, which originated from accounts given by Christian refugees to a priest who was himself fleeing Iraq, said a 14-year-old boy was crucified early last month in Basra. Full details of the atrocity are yet to emerge.
AIN also gave a graphic account of the murder of a priest, Fr Paul Alexander which, it said, was in retaliation for Pope Benedict XVI quoting a 14th century Byzantine ruler who regarded some aspects of Islam as "evil and inhuman".
Fr Alexander was snatched from Mosul's Syriac Orthodox Catholic Church on October 9 by extremists who demanded that the Vatican should pay a £200,000 ransom and nail a written apology from the Pope to the priest's church door.
Fr Alexander's body was found three days later. He had been disembowelled. His arms and legs were severed, then he was beheaded. It is the most gruesome in a series of beheadings and other atrocities committed against Christians, including the brutal treatment of a group of nuns journeying from Baghdad to Jordan.
In a letter to Miss Rice which was made public Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, the chairman of the bishop's committee on international policy, said: "We deplore the sectarian violence engulfing the Shia and Sunni communities in Iraq. We are especially and acutely aware of the deliberate violence perpetrated against Christians and other vulnerable minorities.
"The beheading of a Syriac Orthodox priest in Mosul, the crucifixion of a Christian teenager in Basra, the frequent kidnappings for ransom of Christians including four priests ... the rape of Christian women and teenage girls and the bombings of churches are all indicators that the situation has reached a crisis point."
The bishops have asked Miss Rice to consider the creation of a new "administrative region" in the northern Nineveh Plain area that would be governed by Baghdad but controlled by the Kurds, whom they described as the "key to stability" in the country. "This could provide Christians and other minorities with greater safety and offer more opportunity to control their own affairs," Bishop Wertski wrote, adding that he would be happy to meet Miss Rice to discuss his proposals in person.
The concern of the bishops was heightened by figures from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees which revealed that 44 per cent of Iraqi refugees are Christian, even though they represent only four per cent of the total population of Iraq.
Although Iraq is a predominantly Muslim country, Christians have lived in the region since the first century. The majority are Chaldean Roman Catholics who speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
They were tolerated under the secular regime of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim, who even made one of them, Tariq Aziz, his deputy. But as the war has radicalised Islamic sensibilities, Christians have seen their total numbers slump from 12 million before the USled invasion of March 2003 to about 600,000 today.
An exodus to the neighbouring countries of Syria, Jordan and Turkey has left behind closed parishes, seminaries and convents.
John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), a charity set up to help persecuted Christians, said he was aware of reports of the crucifixion of a Christian boy in Basra in October, but had no details.
He said he also agreed with
the US bishops' assessment of the situation in Iraq. "What we are now witnessing in Iraq is a vicious attempt to wipe Christianity from the face of a country," he said. "Beheadings, killings, arrests and torture, it is the stuff of nightmares, an era every bit as cruel as the persecution of Christians in Roman times."
Walt Grazer, policy adviser in the US bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace in Washington, said: "We have few details of the crucifixion because it is so difficult getting information out of Iraq. We are trying to find out more about this and all the other incidents. We have a long history of working with the US State Department and I are sure Miss Rice will take this letter very seriously."
Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk later told ACN he was aware of the reports of the crucifixion and suggested that a second crucifixion of a Christian had also been carried out in the central Iraqi town of Baquba, the scene of several massacres last month.
"I was very shocked to discover this report about the crucifixion of the boy," the archbishop said. "It is impossible to imagine that something like this could happen in the 21st century. It is almost the case now that there is no future for the Church in some parts of the country, including Baghdad, Mosul and Basra."
Many of the Christian refugees have fled the south of the country to escape the harsh interpretation of Shariah religious law that is being imposed by Shia radicals on all people.
Bishop Djibrail Kassab of Basra left his diocese last week to take up new role as Archbishop for the Chaldean community in Sydney, Australia.
Archbishop Sako said: "Nobody is going to replace him. There is only one priest left in the diocese and only 200 families. People are very worried about the future. How long will it take before the situation improves?"
Archbishop Sako also doubted whether the intervention by the American bishops could ease the plight of Iraq's Christians. "This could create much more tension than relief for Christians," he said. "We are Iraqis, we belong to the Iraqi civilization. We have lived beside the Muslims and in an Islamic culture for so long. We have not at all assimilated with the coalition forces. We have nothing to do with them, nor indeed do we have anything to do with the West.
"We are Christians; we are citizens like everyone else. We have to look for a political statement. At the end of this month there will be a meeting of all the bishops in Iraq to deal with this subject the future of Christianity in Iraq."
The meeting will involve examining the possible breakup of Iraq into three states along Kurdish, Sunni and Shia lines and discussion of a new attempt to drop Shariah law from the constitution.