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Anglican Bishop Riah Abu Al-Assal in the Holy Land fears the outbreak of war in Iraq could have a devastating effect on Christian presence in the Middle East.

"We had the Gulf War in the 1990s which caused many Iraqi Christians to leave or emigrate and now, God forbid, with another war in Iraq, we will put an end to Christian presence throughout the Middle East," said Abu Al-Assal, the head of the Anglican church in Jerusalem.

Abu Al-Assal said the start of armed hostilities may continue an historical trend that could see Christians being forced out of the area altogether. "I fear what may happen as the result of a war in Iraq."

The bishop, a Palestinian Christian, said he based his fear on a reading of history. Many Muslims believed the 1991 conflict in Iraq was a modern day equivalent of the Christian Crusades, which Abu Al-Assal says, "caused a lot of harm to Christian presence in Jerusalem and throughout the Middle East."

"Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair are seen by the majority of the people of the Middle East as Christians, and when Mr. Bush spoke of a crusade and said this was a slip of the tongue, many people [in the Middle East] did not believe him anymore," the Anglican bishop said.

While the word crusade has come to mean any strong campaign for a cause in the West, Abu Al-Assal said many people in the Middle East "think that this is going to be a crusade and a war of that nature, where Islam is targeted, where Muslims are targeted.

"Speaking of Islam and Muslims as a bunch of terrorists will cause the greatest harm to the Christian presence in the birthplace of our faith. I fear for what remains in this land of the Holy One."

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