The governments of the Netherlands, Great Britain, and other European countries have refused asylum to many Iraqis, including thousands of individual Christians. But this year, evangelical leaders and human rights groups are pushing to resettle Christian refugees in groups to help them maintain their church identity.
The stream of Christian refugees from Iraq and surrounding countries has increased in recent years, though exact numbers do not exist because refugees are not counted by religious affiliation, said Grégor Puppinck, director of the European Center for Law and Justice, the European arm of the American Center for Law and Justice.
United Nations estimates average 1.4 million refugees from Iraq, and half of those may be Christian, according to Thomas Schirrmacher, director of the International Institute for ReligiousFreedom and speaker on human rights for the World EvangelicalAlliance.
After a high-profile church attack in Baghdad killed 58 in late October amid renewed violence against Christians, some church leaders are urging Iraqi Christians to leave their country.
Last month, the 47 member countries of the Council of Europe, an organization devoted to European unity, formally addressed the plight of Middle Eastern Christians for the first time.
At the meeting, the council adopted a recommendation on "Violence Against Christians in the Middle East," which states that the council will monitor religious violence in the Middle East, offer some individuals religion-based asylum, and help relocate Christian refugees.
"We needed to keep the problem on the political agenda and make sure that the European institutions continue to protect the rights and the security as much as possible of these minorities," said Puppinck, who coordinated the discussion. "The Council of Europe has influence on the [European Court of Human Rights] and the rest of the European states."
In early November, the un refugee agency recommended that European states not force refugees to return to Iraq until security and human rights situations substantially improve. The Iraqi Christian minority, including 5,000 Christians displaced from the city of Mosul in early 2010, is listed among at-risk Iraqi groups.
As these Christians decide where to go next, many are turning to Europe rather than surrounding Middle Eastern countries.
Christians face kidnapping, arbitrary arrest, torture, and other difficulties in Iraq, said Yara Hussein, legal adviser for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Jordan. And of the surrounding countries, only Egypt and Turkey have signed the UNHCR Refugee Convention but with heavy restrictions, she said.
"While the outside world considers them to be 'refugees,' they have no corresponding status in their host countries of the Middle East," Hussein said. "The best solution for Iraqi Christian refugees and asylum seekers isto have the chance and rightto integrate within local churches in host countries in the West." Middle East churches are already vulnerable and cannot offer safe haven, she said.
Many Christians who have already fled their home country are eager to leave the Middle East.
"For them, in many cases, to choose between Jordan and Germany is not a choice between a culture that is similar and a totally different culture," Schirrmacher said. "For them, it's often just the choice between a Muslim country—Jordan—and a Christian country—Germany."
The German Evangelical Alliance is partnering with churches to relocate groups of hundreds of Christians who then recreate Syriac and Orthodox church communities in Germany. Schirrmacher testified before the German parliament in 2008 to persuade the government to activate an old refugee law and accept large refugee groups so Christians could transplant their culture, language, and religious traditions to their new European homes.
Although Schirrmacher thinks it unlikely that Christian refugees will be able to return to Iraq soon, he is hopeful those Syriac church communities in Germany and elsewhere will keep Middle Eastern church tradition alive.
"The idea was to bring them to other countries in big groups, not only a single refugee … so they would have a chance to go on with this," Schirrmacher said. "In Germany and the Netherlands, it really worked. You really have areas where there are 200 or 300 Syriac Orthodox Christians speaking Aramaic in a place so they can form congregations again."
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No Place Like a House | Affordable units help Middle Eastern Christians stay put. (February 16, 2011)
'Religicide' in Iraq | Fatal attacks trigger exodus of Christians from major cities. (February 16, 2011)
The United States Needs an Ambassador for Religious Freedom Now | The Obama administration must send a clear signal to Egypt and the Middle East that they must embrace religious freedom in full. (February 8, 2011)
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