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Observers say many of Iraq's more than 1 million Assyrian Christians may be forced to flee the country because of growing sectarian violence.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says Assyrian Christians used to make up 5 percent of Iraq's total population. Then came the Iraq war. Assyrians now compose "upwards of 40 percent of [Iraqi] refugees," with most fleeing to Jordan and Syria.

Pascale Warda, former Iraqi minister of displacement and migration, said in October that the country's Assyrian Christians—also known as Chaldeans—are being targeted by hard-line Sunni and Shiite Muslims. In addition, Kurds are seizing land owned by some Assyrian Christians. They then deny the Assyrians access to water, according to the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, which focuses on issues affecting Iraq's minorities.

"This is a dark phase for us," said Warda, an Assyrian Christian. "The situation is turning more and more [violent]."

Charles Klutz, a convert to the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, leads a congregation with many Iraqi immigrants in the Chicago area. He says Assyrians in Iraq "have to stay indoors continually, afraid to go to the shop, [that] one of these crazies will swoop down on them. They've lost churches in Baghdad because of this."

Advocates for Assyrian Christians are pushing for a multiethnic self-governing region in northern Iraq, as a haven for Iraqi minorities.

The Assyrians can be traced back to 2400 B.C. They adopted Christianity in the church's early years.

Michael Youash, director of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, said that after the U.S. invasion, Assyrian Christians hoped for a form of self-government similar to what the Kurds had in northern Iraq. As the ...

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January 2007

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