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Stalked

Over 2 million Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries. Victims of organized militant groups, most are traumatized into never going back-but where do they go from here?

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

ALEPPO and DAMASCUS, Syria-Thousands of Iraqi Christians have found threats like this under their front doors or stoops, in stairwells or shoved through their courtyard gates: "Be informed that we will cut your heads and leave your dead bodies with no organs and no heads in your stores and houses. We know your houses and we know your family. We will kill you one after the other. Depart the Muslim areas."

Others have received text messages in Arabic like this one sent to a Christian family in Mosul earlier this month: "When your head is put over your back [an expression describing how sheep are slaughtered] then there is no chance to feel sorry for you. It will be too late. Allah is the supporter who gives swords to his warriors."

Christians sometimes receive the threats while shopping in the market or repairing a carburetor. They are often personal and usually signed by "al-Mujahideen," "al-Jihad," "al-Tawheed company" or other militant groups, splinters of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Few ever identify who is behind the threats but all reach the same conclusion, as one recipient put it: "To stay is to be killed."

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(Note: This article in several places uses sources not identified or identified only by their first name. This is at the sources' request and WORLD's recognition that their lives are at risk.)

As a result, over 2 million Iraqis-about 25 percent of them identified as Christians-have fled to neighboring countries, mostly Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. (View the map.) Judging from extensive conversations with Iraqis living in Jordan and Syria, few want to go home. While at least 40,000 Iraqis have been killed in fighting, random violence, and terrorism since the U.S. invasion in 2003, these refugees are the Iraq War's living casualties-psychologically damaged from the prolonged terrorism, afraid of the next text message or the letter on the doormat, and helpless before a fearful future.

"This is different from other refugee situations in the past," Roger Winter, the former U.S. Special Representative for Sudan and past president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees, told me. "The bad guys are directly stalking Christians and other targeted groups in order to kill some and get their community out. The organized stalking to drive them out makes them so vulnerable."

How can Americans help and how should president-elect Barack Obama respond, particularly as Iraq approaches key elections in early 2009? He and the galvanized Democrat-led Congress have promised to withdraw troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office-a step likely to diminish what few steps the United States has taken to ease the refugee problem.

Casualty numbers in Iraq will be much lower in 2008 than in past years, but recent violence in Mosul, where several dozen Christians have been killed in the last two months and militants have bombed homes belonging to Christians, demonstrates how quickly militants can reignite a terror campaign. For example, on Nov. 12 militants shot and killed a woman waiting for a bus to go to work, then went to her home, where they shot and killed her sister and stabbed her mother. The attackers then set off a bomb that destroyed the house and wounded three policemen who had arrived to investigate.

Syrian church leaders say these and other similar episodes are propelling newly displaced families across the border into Syria this month. "At least 120-150 families have arrived to our different churches over the last couple of weeks, adding to our lists," wrote one in a Nov. 15 email. "Most of these families arrived with their hand bags and nothing else in their hands. It is a pitiful situation, and we feel handicapped and paralyzed and not able to help them."

In 2007 only 1,600 Iraqis of the millions at risk received asylum to enter the United States: Humanitarian groups charged that the United States is not doing enough to resolve a refugee crisis it helped to create. In 2008 the number is set to be far larger-over 12,000-after Congress and the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security agreed to accept additional cases. But the higher number still helps only a portion of those that under the 1951 Geneva Convention for granting permanent asylum to refugees can demonstrate "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion."

Lacking approval for resettlement, Iraqis have only temporary status in neighboring countries, little opportunity for finding work to make a living, little money to pay for housing and other necessities, and little hope for their future. That plight seems to fall hardest on Christians and other minorities, who in addition to the day-to-day hardships face discrimination and persecution in the wider Middle East.

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