Father Habib Hermiz of the Saint George Chaldean Church in Baghdad says Christians are becoming targets of extortion as the country's security situation continues to unravel.

In July, a band of criminals threatened to kill members of Saint George unless the church paid $10,000. The church refused and American forces sent extra patrols, but officers told Hermiz they couldn't provide 24-hour security. Despite offers of help from a local mosque, Hermiz began advising church members to move out of Baghdad to safer ground in northern Iraq.

This summer street crime in Baghdad has gone from bad to worse, for Muslims as well as Christians. Mel Lehman is a veteran of seven trips to Baghdad in his ministry, the Children of Iraq, associated with the Mennonite Central Committee.

"Back in the old days when Saddam was in power, I had no trouble whatsoever walking along the streets at night," Lehman told CT. Lehman said he was shocked by the dangerous situation during a July fact-finding mission. Now he is thinking of calling off an effort to bring in a team of doctors.

Mark Smith of Convoy of Hope, a faith-based group from Springfield, Missouri, was in Iraq in May and again in early July. He said the security situation has forced his group to make adjustments.

"We have been warned by security people within the larger [humanitarian aid] community that it appears to possibly be a significant risk" for any Westerner, said Smith. So Smith's group is pushing ahead with projects using Jordanian and Iraqi nationals. Smith is telling inexperienced American church volunteers to hold off.

"At this point we're just saying, 'It's not the time to come yet.' And we're not sure when that time will be," Smith said.

Leadership in transition


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