hearing in Washington about attacks against christians of Iraq and Egypt
By Gary Feuerberg
Epoch Times Staff
Jan, 26, 2011
WASHINGTON—Christians in Egypt and Iraq are under siege and at risk of being driven from the region, warn experts, and they want the Obama administration to take proactive steps to stem the tide. In a hearing room packed with Middle East Christians on Capitol Hill on Jan. 20, a wide range of experts drew a disturbing picture of how recent attacks on Christian minorities in Iraq and Egypt are systemic of a larger trend.
CONGRESSMEN Chris Smith (R-N.J.) confers with the chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, Frank Wolf (R-Va.), before a hearing begins, Jan. 20, on Capitol Hill. Both congressmen are concerned about an upsurge of violence in Egypt and Iraq against Christian minorities.
(Gary Feuerberg/ Epoch Times)
On Oct. 31, 2010, at least 70 people were killed and at least 60 wounded during a siege on Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic Church, Our Lady of Salvation Church. The suicide bombers entered the sacred ground, executed worshippers, including two priests and some policemen, making it the worse massacre of Iraqi Christians since 2003. This terror was followed by 10 bomb attacks targeting Christian homes over Christmas and New Year’s, resulting in the deaths of at least four Christians, said Congressman Trent Franks (R-Ariz.)
On New Year’s Eve in Alexandria, Egypt, a suicide bomber killed about two dozen worshippers as they were leaving a Coptic Church. It was the worst violence against the country’s Christian minority in a decade. ‘Empty Iraq of Christians’ While these attacks and others have made Christians in both Egypt and Iraq and throughout the Middle East fearful, the situation in Iraq is particularly grave. Claiming responsibility for the Syrian church massacre, the Islamic State of Iraq, a front group for al-Qaeda in Iraq, announced that all Christians in Iraq are deemed “legitimate targets,” said Rep. Franks. One recent attack in Baghdad struck Rep. Franks for its callousness: “Islamic militants left a bomb on the doorstep of the home of an elderly Christian couple and rang the doorbell. When the elderly couple answered the door, the bomb exploded, tragically ending both of their precious lives.”
This was one of several Christian homes targeted that evening. Related Articles * Iraqi Christian Churches Cancel Christmas Celebrations * Christian Democracy Activist’s Seventh Year in Solitary Confinement
SPEAKING UP for the Coptic people, attorney Dina Guirguis, Keston Family Research Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, explained the discrimination and violence inflicted on the largest Christian minority in Egypt. She spoke Jan. 20 at a hearing on recent violence against Copts. (Gary Feuerberg/ Epoch Times)
The shear horror of the Oct. 31 siege and massacre was made poignant by the anonymous testimony of Sister Rita from a Catholic Dominican Order, who was hidden from view at the hearing by screens. Many of the victims were members of her own family and relatives and friends of her religious sisters and brothers. She said that when the terrorists entered the church, the priest presiding tried to talk to them. “Without saying a word, they killed him.” Then another priest attempted to do the same and he was killed. “Survivors of the massacre said that after killing the two priests, the terrorists started killing all the men in the church. … Some people were able to hide in the sacristy, which saved their lives.”
Nina Shea, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said at the hearing that Iraq’s smallest religious minorities are vulnerable and desperate. “Victimized by discrimination, marginalization, displacement and violence, they do not receive adequate protection and justice from the state and lack militia or tribal structures to defend themselves in the absence of government protection.” The result has been mass exodus.
Many Christians flee north to the violent Nineveh governorate or leave Iraq and become refugees in Syria or Jordan. After the Oct. 31 attack, Shea quoted Iraq’s human rights minister, herself a Christian, who said it was an attempt “to empty Iraq of Christians.” Iraqi Prime Minister Nur al-Maliki visited the church and condemned the attack, and has tried to persuade Christians not to abandon the country. But it is not enough to protect Christians in Iraq and Egypt from violence and discrimination, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, deputy assistant secretary for Near East Affairs for the State Department.
“Ultimately, we have to alter the way the young people are educated about their country and one another, so that they come to see their Christian fellow citizens as an integral and historical part of the social fabric of the country.” In 2003, prior to the Iraq war, the number of Christians in Iraq was estimated at 1.4 million. Today, about 500,000 remain and “these ancient religious communities face complete extinction,” said Congresswoman Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.).
Eshoo said that the trend is that the Middle East, the birthplace of Christianity, is becoming denuded of Christians. In 1900, Christians made up about 20 percent of the Middle East population. Today, they make up less than 5 percent, she said. ‘Reconciliation” in Lieu of Justice in Egypt RELIGIOUS FREEDOM:
Nina Shea, Commissioner, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, advises Congress and the President on violations of religious freedom. She testified at a congressional hearing Jan. 20 on the recent bloodshed in Iraq and Egypt against Christian minorities,. (Gary Feuerberg/ Epoch Times) Egypt’s native Christians, the Coptic people, comprise 10-15 percent of Egypt’s 83 million people and are the Middle East’s largest Christian minority, said Dina Guirguis, Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Egyptian government does too little to protect the Copts, however, and has shown reluctance to bring to justice those who have committed violence against Christians, said Dr. Michele Dunn, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As an example, Guirguis cited that nobody was ever convicted for the January 2000 violence in the village of al-Kosh in Upper Egypt where 21 Christians and 1 Muslim were killed. On rare occasions, the culprits can get a sentence of only one or two years when there is enormous public and international pressure. Guirguis said that lately “the scope and geographical reach of the sectarian violence has multiplied often with the direct involvement and incitement of the Egyptian state security apparatus as well as other state authorities and symbols.”
In the recent Jan. 11 shooting, the government called it a nonsectarian attack. Instead of having an open discussion of the root causes of the animosity and sectarian violence, the government wants to minimize the sectarian aspect, Guirguis said. Guirguis said that for months before the New Year’s attack, there had been threats, from Muslim extremists that the government ignored. Related Articles * Iraqi Christian Churches Cancel Christmas Celebrations * Christian Democracy Activist’s Seventh Year in Solitary Confinement SEEKING U.S. INTERVENTION: Members of the audience at a congressional hearing, Jan. 20, listen attentively regarding the recent attacks on Christian minorities in Iraq and Egypt.
Congress Members, a U.S. State Department spokesperson, and various witnesses spoke about the problems. Many in the audience had experienced discrimination or worse because of their faith. (Gary Feuerberg/ Epoch Times) The state forces “reconciliation” sessions, said Guirguis, where the victims and perpetrators are brought together and the Christians coerced into signing an affidavit, relinquishing the right to a criminal prosecution and compensation for the destruction of personal property. The coercion is done by making sweeping arrests of the minority community, and without distinguishing the victims from the perpetrators, holding them hostage until the authorities get the desired outcome. The government is creating an environment of impunity, whereby “the murders evade accountability,” said Guirguis. Nina Shea, U.S. Commission on International Freedom, quoted from a U.S. State Department report that stated the “reconciliation” sessions prevent the prosecuting of perpetrators of crimes against Copts and “contributed to a climate of impunity that encouraged further assaults.”
Congressman Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chaired this hearing, made two proposals to enable the U.S. government to play a more active role in getting the attention of the Egyptian and Iraqi governments when violence and discrimination occurs. Wolf would like to have a full-time staff member to represent Christian minorities at the American Embassies in Cairo and Bagdad. And for the Obama administration to appoint a special envoy similar to the George Mitchell’s role for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
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