A Christian Exodus Sweeps the Middle East
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A senior U.S. official says the battle to retake control of Iraq's second largest city of Mosul from ISIS terrorists is approaching its final stages.
"It's really just a matter of time," Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition against ISIS told reporters while visiting the outskirts of the Iraqi city.
"I'm not going to put timelines on it, this has been a long and very difficult campaign but ISIS is down to its last stronghold in the western part of the city," McGurk said. "Anyone left in there, they either have to surrender or they're going to die."
But as Iraqi forces, backed by U.S. and coalition troops, prepare for their final assault on the besieged city, many Iraqis, especially Christians, are worried about what their country will look like after the fall of the terror group.
The heads of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are asking authorities to establish a safe haven for the country's persecuted Christians in the ethnically diverse and volatile Nineveh province where various religious groups have often fought each other over territory.
Late last week, leaders of Iraq's three main churches, the Syriac Catholic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church issued a joint statement urging their government leaders to set up a safeguards for beleaguered Christians.
"The security and protection of Christian localities in Nineveh Plain, a free zone, and international protection, under United Nations, away from conflicts and rivalries," the heads of the churches wrote.
The statement comes on the heels of a dire warning from one of the country's top Islamic leaders who described Iraq's Christians as "infidels" and warned that those who decide not to convert to Islam must pay a religious tax or leave town.
"Jihad should be implemented in regard to the Christians in order for them to convert to Islam, either they will become Muslims or we must fight them, or they ought to pay jizzya," Ali Mousavi, head of the Shiite Waqf bureau, recently told his followers.
The situation in Nineveh, Iraq's second largest province, is especially dicey for Christians. Rich in oil, the Nineveh Plains has historically been a flash-point of violence between Christians and Muslims. Now some fear it could get worse after the defeat of ISIS.
"The situation after ISIS will be more dangerous than when Isis itself was here," Idris Merza, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian party told the Financial Times. "If each (political force) in Iraq wants to protect only its interest and the interests of its supporters, then we will lose and we will never regain a safe environment here."
Iraq was home to more than 1.5 million Christians before violence plunged the nation into ethnic and religious chaos in the mid-2000s. Now, less than 270,000 Christians remain.
Sadly, it's a scene that's playing out across the Middle East as persecution of the world's largest religion intensifies in its birthplace and the "dominance of Islam" deepens.
"Christians were 13.6 percent of the region's population in 1910 but only 4.2 percent in 2010; by 2025, they will likely constitute 3.6 percent," according to Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
Johnson says the "ongoing exodus" from places like Syria and Iraq will only get worse as pressure from radical Islamic militants intensifies and forces many Christians to leave the region for safer pastures.
He says Christianity's "diminishing presence is troubling" and will eventually lead to a Middle East dominated by Islam.
"The disappearance of such minorities sets the stage for more radical groups to dominate in society," Johnson told the Wall Street Journal. "Religious minorities, at the very least, have a moderating effect."
Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, has seen this exodus first-hand.
"I ask Christians if they want to go back to their homes, because many of these Christian villages along the plain of Nineveh, have been freed but they are sitting there empty," Graham, head of Samaritan's Purse, told CBN News upon his return from a trip to northern Iraq.
Graham, who spent time visiting displaced Christian refugees, said the Iraqi government has yet to promise Christians any protection from further attacks by radical Muslims.
"Most people are very afraid that the Christians no longer have a future," Graham said.
Christians he met told him that they "don't trust the Muslims; They've killed us before, they'll kill us again, unless we are protected we can't go back."
According to Iraqi government officials, more than one hundred churches and monasteries in Mosul alone have been destroyed by ISIS since 2014.
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