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Iraqi gang frees kidnapped Christians

Religious freedom in Iraq seems to be a low priority for both the Iraqi government and the US-led Coalition forces. But fortunately, the news below is basically positive.

...from Compass Direct News:

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL, June 22 (Compass Direct News) ? Christian university students and faculty kidnapped two days ago on their way home from exams at Mosul University were released today, an Iraqi satellite TV channel reported.

According to Ashtar TV, two university teachers and six students from the predominantly Syrian Catholic village of Qaraqosh were released in Mosul city around noon today.

"We have received the good news of the release of the eight, and the people here are very happy," a priest from Qaraqosh told Compass. He requested that Compass not publish the names of the eight people for security reasons.

Local sources said that family members retrieved the freed Christians from an undisclosed location in Mosul city at about 1 p.m. after a representative of all eight families had paid a ransom for their release earlier this morning.

According to one priest, the families gave a total of US$250,000 for the group, which he said consisted of only one teacher and seven students, several of whom were doing post-graduate work.

The kidnapping highlights the vulnerability of Iraq's religious minorities, who, without militias of their own, often suffer at the hands of armed groups.

"First of all, they were kidnapped for money, and secondly, they were kidnapped because they are Christians," the Qaraqosh priest said. "The minorities are vulnerable."

The priest said that Christians' vulnerability stemmed from the fact that they were called to live lives of peace. "That's why we can't arm ourselves," he commented. According to the priest, the students and teacher had suffered from torture during their two day captivity.

On Wednesday, June 20, unidentified assailants stopped a bus carrying Christian students from Mosul University, where they had been taking exams, to their homes in Qaraqosh, 30 kilometers (19 miles) southeast.

Local sources confirmed initial reports by Catholic news agency Asia News that armed men had boarded the bus and read a list of names of the people they wanted, checking identity cards when no one responded.

"They had some names written down, because there were some people who told them that they could have a big ransom from these [particular] families," a source said.

The source also confirmed that the kidnapping had taken place in Hail Musena, near a police station, but that officials had failed to intervene.

In a June 21 article, police told Reuters that eight Christian university students had been snatched off a bus east of Mosul.

Battling Dangers

Located only a few miles from Mosul, where religiously-driven violence has killed two priests in the past year, Christians in Qaraqosh have been forced to adopt creative solutions to counter deteriorating security.

Syrian Catholic leaders have organized a volunteer-based village guard of approximately 1,200 men who patrol Qaraqosh's perimeter around the clock in four six-hour shifts. Armed men check all traffic entering and leaving the village, at times accompanying unknown travelers on their personal visits.

During a visit to the village in November 2006, local clergy told Compass that they had temporarily opened their own seminary, the St. Ephraim Institute, because their young men were unable to attend classes in Baghdad. At that time, deteriorating security in Baghdad's Dora district and a string of kidnappings had forced the Chaldean college and seminary, which served members of various churches, to close its doors.

Qaraqosh also has had to deal with an influx of some 1,500 refugee families from Baghdad and Mosul over the past three years. Its total population has now hit 35,000, up from 29,000 in 2003.

But the most recent kidnapping is halting one of the Syrian Catholic church's most gutsy innovations, a daily caravan of buses to transport students to and from Mosul University. It was one of these buses from which gunmen snatched eight Christians on Wednesday.

"It tears us apart, the fear of even one bus being hit," one Qaraqosh priest told Compass in November, referring to the possibility of an attack on the caravan.

"We are stopping the buses because it's too dangerous," a priest told Compass from Qaraqosh today, saying that the caravan created too big a target for Islamists and money-making gangs.

Mosul-based groups have increasingly begun to carry out violence in Christian villages outside the city. Two Christians were buried in Telskuf, 25 kilometers (16 miles) north of Mosul, on Tuesday (June 19) after a kidnapping gang returned the bodies to their families the previous day, Iraqi Christian website Ankawa.com reported.

Ramzi Yakou Shamasha, 50, and Ismael Azria Shamashal, 48, were kidnapped on June 11 and killed two days later, despite the fact that their families paid $20,000 for their release, Ankawa.com reported.

Before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christians made up 3 percent of the country's population. That number has dropped in the past four years as hundreds of thousands have fled Iraq due to the deteriorating security situation in which Christians and other minorities are often specifically targeted.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom, striking a worrisome tone, recently reported that religious freedom in Iraq

was in jeopardy.

The Commission is giving consideration to a recommendation that the Bush administration designate Iraq as a "country of particular concern." That in part would mean increased focus at the diplomatic level on religious liberty.

On page 86, of the USCIRF's recent report, the commission notes:

This year the Commission added Iraq to its Watch List, due to the alarming and deteriorating situation for freedom of religion and belief. Despite ongoing efforts to stabilize the country, successive Iraqi governments have not adequately curbed the growing scope and severity of human rights abuses. Although non-state actors, particularly the Sunni-dominated insurgency, are responsible for a substantial proportion of the sectarian violence and associated human rights violations, the Iraqi government also bears responsibility. That responsibility takes two forms. First, the Iraqi government has engaged in human rights violations through its state security forces, including arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without due process, extrajudicial executions, and torture. These violations affect suspected Sunni insurgents, but also ordinary Sunnis who are targeted on the basis of their religious identity.

Second, the Iraqi government tolerates religiously based attacks and other religious freedom abuses carried out by armed Shi'a factions including the Jaysh al-Mehdi (Mahdi Army) and the Badr Organization. These abuses include abductions, beatings, extrajudicial executions, torture and rape. Relationships between these para-state militias and leading Shi'a factions within Iraq's ministries and governing coalition indicate that these groups operate with impunity and often, governmental complicity. Although many of these militia-related violations reveal the challenges evident in Iraq's fragmented political system, they nonetheless reflect the Iraqi government's tolerance - and in some instances commission - of egregious violations of religious freedom.

Finally, the Commission also noted the grave conditions for non-Muslims in Iraq, including ChaldoAssyrian Christians, Yazidis, and Sabean Mandaeans, who continue to suffer pervasive and severe violence and discrimination at the hands of both government and non-government actors. The Commission has added Iraq to its Watch List with the understanding that it may designate Iraq as a CPC next year if improvements are not made by the Iraqi government.

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