by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & S & lt;/span & ince 2003, about half of Iraq's Christians have fled the country -- mainly to refugee camps -- as violence between Muslim sects grew deadly and a sense of Islamic extremism has grown.

Catholic Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., and Gen. Georges Sada, a Chaldean Christian and former two-star general in Saddam Hussein's Air Force, each told The Inlander recently that 600,000 Iraqi Christians have fled the country because of increased persecution.

Wenski was speaking from Baltimore where the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, headed by Spokane's William Skylstad, was meeting. In late October, Wenski wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seeking international protections for Iraqi Christians. His letter included references to a pair of gruesome acts committed against Christians in the last month: the dismembering of a priest in the northern city of Mosul and the crucifixion of a 14-year-old boy in Basra.

Sada was in Spokane to speak about Iraqi issues for World Compassion, an international aid movement founded by evangelical minister Terry Law of Tulsa, Okla. Sada also says that Christians in Iraq need protection and that their persecution needs to gain international attention.

In early October, a Syriac Orthodox Catholic priest, Father Paul Alexander, was kidnapped by a group that demanded that the Vatican pay a $375,000 ransom and that Pope Benedict XVI nail a written apology to the Mosul church's door for remarks he made earlier this year that Islam was "evil and inhuman." The priest's body was found three days later. He had been disemboweled. His limbs were severed and arranged in a circle about his head, which had been placed on his chest.

There were fewer details about the Basra child who was crucified, although two religious news services carried a sketchy account.

"Before the war began, Christians made up 4 percent of Iraq, at 1.2 million [people]," Wenski says. "Since the war, 600,000 have left."

These people, who've fled primarily to border regions of Jordan and Syria, are living in a political limbo, Wenski says, because no country has given them status as political or religious refugees.

Sada and Wenski say the 600,000 who remain in Iraq are under great pressure. News accounts this year show that dozens of Christian churches have been destroyed. The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reports that instances of extortion and death threats have increased this month, even in Kurd-controlled areas, forcing a second priest to flee Mosul for his life.

In the letter he sent to the State Department, Wenski asks Rice to create a new "administrative region" in northern Iraq that could become a sanctuary for Christians. Creation of an autonomous Christian area has been sought since 2004, when both Kurds and Arabs stepped up persecution of Christians.

"We'd like them to be taken to one of the quieter areas of the country -- especially around the Plains of Nineveh," Wenski says. "This area is held by the Kurds and is more peaceful."

The Plains of Nineveh are the Tigris River plains near Mosul and site of the ancient empire. (Sada was born in Nineveh.) The long-ago Assyrian empire is home to most of Iraq's Christians. The Assyrians were converted by St. Thomas on his way to India 1,400 years ago, Sada says, just before the Prophet Muhammad lived.

The Assyrian Christians, says Sada, have long been respected in Iraqi society with reputations for honesty and courage. Even Saddam Hussein surrounded himself with Christian advisors, including Sada and former deputy Prime Minister Tarik Aziz.

After he was sacked by Saddam for refusing to execute captured airmen during the first Gulf War, Sada became a born-again Christian; by 2002, he had befriended Law. He is now head of the National Presbyterian Church in Baghdad and chairman of the Assembly of Evangelical Presbyterian Churches of Iraq.

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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.