Iraqi Christians warrant push to 'redouble' protection

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WASHINGTON — An independent federal body that monitors religious freedom worldwide is calling on the United States to "redouble its efforts" in helping protect Iraq's persecuted Christian community.

With the United Nations Security Council set to meet Dec. 15, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a statement urging the U.S. to view the council's meeting "as an opportunity" to address the "grave situation" facing Iraq's Christians and other religious minorities.

Although the Christian community in Iraq has been declining numerically for years because of waves of persecution, the exodus has increased in recent weeks following the murder of 51 Catholics and two priests by a terrorist group called The Islamic State of Iraq, which has al-Qaida ties. The group released a statement calling Christians "legitimate targets" in the Muslim-majority country. Those fleeing are going to Syria or Jordan or to the Kurdish-dominated northern part of Iraq.

"The recent upsurge in attacks against Christians makes clear ... that the country's most vulnerable religious minorities remain in peril," USCIRF said in a statement. "... [T]hese ancient communities' very existence in the country is now threatened. The loss of the diversity and human capital these groups represent would be a terrible blow to Iraq's future as a secure, stable, and pluralistic democracy."

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that Christians and other minorities make up 20 percent of the Iraqis who have left the country since 2003, despite the fact they made up only 3 percent of the population prior to the war starting in '03, The New York Times reported. More than half of the nation's Christians have fled Iraq since 2003, according to Compass Direct News.

USCIRF recommended that the United States do more in Iraq to:

• Provide protection.

"In consultation with the Christian and other minority religious communities' political and civic representatives, identify the places throughout Iraq where these targeted minorities worship, congregate, and live, and work with the Iraqi government to assess security needs and develop and implement a comprehensive and effective plan for dedicated Iraqi military protection of these sites and areas; as this process moves forward, periodically inform Congress on progress," USCIRF said.

• Promote representative community policing.

"Work with the Iraqi government and the Christians' and other smallest minorities' political and civic representatives," USCIRF said, "to establish, fund, train, and deploy representative local police units to provide additional protection in areas where these communities are concentrated."

• Prioritize development assistance for minority areas.

"Ensure that U.S. development assistance prioritizes areas where these vulnerable communities are concentrated, including the Nineveh Plains area, and that the use of such funding is determined in consultation with the political and civic leaders of the communities themselves."

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