London (CNSNews.com) - The death of an Iraqi archbishop has given new impetus to campaigners' attempts to focus attention on the plight of the embattled Christian minority in the Middle Eastern nation.
The body of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was found outside the city of Mosul Thursday, less than two weeks after he was abducted by gunmen who killed his driver and bodyguards.
Christian charities working in Iraq say that Shi'ite and Sunni extremists have targeted Christians, calling them "infidels" and "crusaders."
According to Suha Rassam, head of the British charity Iraqi Christians in Need, around 400,000 of the estimated one million Christians who lived in Iraq before the war began in March 2003 have since fled the country. Others have put the number at about half.
Although all Iraqis have suffered, she said, Christians have been particularly hard-hit because they haven't formed themselves into armed militias, as others have done.
Churches have been destroyed, Christians forcibly evicted from their neighborhoods and several priests have been abducted and killed.
"Christians are not killing anyone," Rassam said. "They have no militias to protect them."
Tradition holds that Christianity has been present in Iraq since the early days of the church, spread by the apostles Thomas and Thaddaeus.
The Chaldean Church, an eastern rite among ethnic Assyrians which recognizes the authority of Rome but has been largely autonomous, is the largest of a range of Christian denominations in Iraq.
With the improvement in security conditions in the last year, churches in Baghdad reportedly saw overflowing pews last Christmas.
However, Rassam said that her sources indicate that many Christians who fled are still too scared to return to Iraq. Her own family has left the country.
According to the United Nations, Syria and Jordan have taken up the majority of refugees from Iraq. Britain came under fire last year for reportedly approving only one-tenth of asylum requests, and for forcibly sending a handful back to the north of the country.
Chris Doyle, a spokesman for The Council for Arab-British Understanding, said Wednesday that the situation remained uncertain although it seemed there has been some movement back into the country.
"I think there is a trickle back but it isn't something that's reached major proportions," he said.
Doyle said one of the risks facing refugees in Syria was that they may become a lightning rod for public discontent. "The longer they remain in Syria, the danger is that they might become scapegoats for larger issues."
Next Wednesday, as part of various demonstrations marking the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, church groups in Britain plan to hold a series of vigils around the country.
Pat Gaffney, director of the British chapter of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, said Thursday that it was important to remember all the Iraqis who have suffered.
With the death of the archbishop, however, the situation of Christian Iraqis had been brought immediately to the fore, she said.
"Obviously as fellow Christians, part of our witness is holding our brothers and sisters in the Iraqi Christian community in our hearts," Gaffney said.
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