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Iraq's Beleaguered Christians Cling to Faith After 20 Years of Brutal Persecution

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In Iraq, two decades of persecution has left ancient Christian communities that were once a vibrant and integral part of the country splintered and in ruins.

Iraq was estimated to have nearly 1.5 million Christians before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. They date back to the first centuries of Christianity and include Chaldean, Syriac, Assyrian and Armenian churches.

Now, church officials estimate only a few hundred thousand, or even less, remain within Iraq’s borders.

The rest are scattered across the globe, resettling in far-flung places like Australia, Canada and Sweden, as well as neighboring countries.

The Vatican for years has voiced concern about the flight of Christians from the Middle East, driven out by war, poverty and persecution.

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Pope Francis hoped to send a message of hope and solidarity in his four-day visit to Iraq — the first by a sitting pontiff — this past weekend.

“Love is our strength, the source of strength for those of our brothers and sisters who here … have suffered prejudice, indignities, mistreatment and persecutions for the name of Jesus,” Francis said in a Saturday sermon at a cathedral in Baghdad.

Here’s a look at the tragedies Iraq’s Christians have endured:

RISE OF islamic MILITANCY

Christians in Iraq were among the first groups targeted amid the breakdown in security that prevailed for years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Hussein.

The chaos that followed ushered in the rise of religious militancy, with the al-Qaida terror network taking the lead.

Killings, kidnappings and bombings became an everyday occurrence, sometimes with multiple bombings on the same day.

A Chaldean Catholic archbishop was found dead in 2008 after being abducted by gunmen.

Churches around the country were bombed repeatedly by Sunni militants, terrorizing the community and setting off an exodus that continues to this day.

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BAGHDAD CHURCH MASSACRE

On October 31, 2010, Islamic militants seized a Baghdad church during Sunday evening mass, killing dozens of people, including two priests, in a terrifying four-hour siege.

It was the deadliest single assault ever recorded against Iraq’s Christians.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an offshoot of al-Qaida, claimed responsibility for the attack at the Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church.

The carnage hastened the Christian flight from Iraq.

ISLAMIC STATE persecution

In the summer of 2014, fighters belonging to the Islamic State swept over the northern city of Mosul and seized a broad swath of the country, including towns and villages in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq.

Thousands of Christians fled the militants’ advance, taking refuge in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region or leaving the country.

Over the next few years, the extremists killed thousands of Iraqi civilians from a variety of religions.

Militants demolished religious and historic sites, including monasteries, mosques, tombs, shrines and churches in Syria and Iraq.

The IS juggernaut and the long war to drive the militants out left homes ransacked and charred across the north.

Christians in the Nineveh plains fled the IS onslaught, and many of those who returned dream of resettling abroad.


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