In Iraq Christians are most vulnerable. Christian leaders fear it would only take one small spark - an aggressive anti-Christian sermon preached in a mosque, or an argument between a Christian and a Muslim neighbour - to trigger violent attacks on churches and Christian homes. To date thankfully no such incidents have occurred despite the pressures on the Iraqi people at the end of the first week of war.
Many Christians have left Baghdad to return to their ancestral homelands in the north of Iraq until the war is over. Others have fled into Syria. "The churches, however, will stay open, regardless of what happens, to guarantee at any time shelter for all" according to Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman. Christians in Baghdad have been sheltering in churches, finding support,
encouragement and prayer at this most tense and dangerous time. One church has sustained broken windows and minor damage as a result of bombing.
In the twelve years since the end of the first Gulf War the Christian population of Iraq dropped dramatically from 1.5 million to 700,000 as Christians fled the country under the combined pressures of Saddam Hussein's regime, UN sanctions and hostility from their Muslim neighbours. Tension for Christians increased markedly during the war in Afghanistan when some were deliberately discriminated against in the distribution of food rations, being derided as "Crusaders" and told to ask America for food instead.
The situation has now become so bad that many Christians dare not openly wear crosses in public for fear that this would make them a target. A number of violent incidents have occurred in recent months including the brutal murder and decapitation of a Christian nun by a Muslim mob. As the war drags on Christians fear that they could become the victims of further such violent
attacks on a much larger scale.
For over a year Barnabas Fund has been expressing the concern of Christian l eaders from all over the Islamic world that war in Iraq could lead to violent reprisals against their poor and vulnerable communities. "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 the Christian presence throughout the Middle East" Bishop Riah Abu Al-Assal of Jerusalem recently warned. In neighbouring Jordan, Fouad, a national Christian interviewed by the BBC, spoke of how "They (the Muslims) look at us differently, they are suspicious of us." Elsewhere, Christian leader Ceceil Chaudry warns that, "Attacks on Christians in Pakistan are one way the Muslim fanatics express their disapproval of American actions anywhere in the world." The US Commission on International Religious Freedom is also voicing its concerns, warning of revenge attacks against Christians and Jews in the Islamic world.
Many countries such as Indonesia and Pakistan have witnessed violent anti-war/anti-Western demonstrations, which have alarmed Christian communities.Eighteen months ago some 200 people were slaughtered and 16,000 left homeless when Muslim demonstrators taking part in an anti-US demonstration during the war in Afghanistan turned on local Christians in Kano, Nigeria, in October 2001.
In Pakistan, there have been at least ten brutal attacks on Christian churches, hospitals, a school and a charity by Islamic extremists in which some forty men, women and children have been killed in the past eighteen months. Following the beginning of the war in Iraq, Pakistan's government began to step up its already significant security measures for the vulnerable Christian community, providing extra armed guards for churches and other Christian buildings.
In October 2001 when American planes began to bomb Afghanistan Christians all over the Islamic world began to suffer violent reprisals in a series of brutal incidents which far outweighed in size and significance the several outrageous attacks on Muslims which occurred in the West
In Indonesia four Christians were dragged from their cars and beaten by Muslim students, in Kenya two churches were burned down, and the words "God is Great" and "We condemn America" were carved into the charred remains.
In Pakistan several Islamic religious leaders issued a fatwa in September 2001 stating that two Pakistani Christians would be killed for every Muslim who died during American strikes on Afghanistan. In one incident a 13-year-old Christian boy was beaten to death by five Muslim men who refused to pay for a meal they had brought from his stand, saying, "Take your payment from America."On another occasion five Christian families were dragged from their homes and savagely beaten by Muslim mobs during anti-American protests.
In the year and a half since the events of 11 September 2001 and the war in Afghanistan, and over a year after the prospect of a new war in Iraq was first raised, the world is now more polarised than ever. As the war progresses Christians in Iraq and other parts of the Islamic world face the prospect of more prejudice and aggression from conservative Muslim neighbours. Despite the
fact that most Christian living in the Islamic world are themselves opposed to the war, and Church leaders have repeatedly declared their opposition, it is their churches, homes and families which face the prospect of bearing the brunt of extremist retaliation.