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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Iraqi Christians Forced to Flee Amid Increasing Intimidation

BAGHDAD -- Despite the chaos and sectarian violence raging across Baghdad, Farouq Mansour felt relatively safe as a Christian living in a multiethnic neighborhood in the capital.

Then, two months ago, al-Qaida gunmen kidnapped him and demanded his family convert to Islam or pay a $30,000 ransom. Two weeks later, he paid up, was released and immediately fled to Syria, joining a mass exodus of Iraq's increasingly threatened Christian minority.

"There is no future for us in Iraq," Mansour said.

Though Islamic extremists have targeted Iraqi Christians before, bombing churches and threatening religious leaders, the latest attacks have taken on a far more personal tone, with many Christians being expelled from their homes and forced to leave their possessions behind, said police, human rights groups and residents.

The Christian community here, about 3 percent of the country's 26 million people, is particularly vulnerable. It has little political or military clout to defend itself, and some Islamic insurgents view it as a fifth column -- calling Christians "Crusaders."

Many churches are now nearly empty during religious services, with much of their congregations either gone or too scared to attend. Only about 30 people sat scattered among the pews at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in the relatively safe Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah during Sunday Mass. About two dozen worshippers took communion in the barren St. Mary's Church in the northern city of Kirkuk on Sunday.

As many as 50 percent of Iraq's Christians may already have left, said a report issued Wednesday by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which also said it was concerned about attacks on Christians and other non-Muslims here.