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By BosNewsLife Correspondents Joseph DeCaro and Stefan J. Bos
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife)– The immigration status of thousands of Christians fleeing bloodshed and persecution in Iraq remained uncertain Monday, November 28, due to new security measures in the United States following fresh terrorism concerns, aid workers said.
Since two Iraqis were detained in May for allegedly aiding terror group al-Qaida in Iraq , already “hundreds of Iraqis” were denied entry into America, explained Jenny Yang, advocacy director of Christian aid group World Relief.
“Enhanced background checks have plugged the refugee pipeline, preventing Iraqi Christians and others from obtaining clearance to come to the U.S.” as authorities seek to uncover potential terrorists among them, added Yang.
Nearly half of all Iraqi refugees were denied entry to the U.S. in many cases because of missing documentation as they “hurriedly fled their homes” without official paperwork, according to World Relief estimates.
“When we’ve raised these cases, we’ve not gotten any clear [answers]. It’s causing a lot of confusion,” explained Yang.
U.S. officials say however that they work as fast as possible at a time of pressure from the Congress to prevent new terrorist attacks on American soil.
In a far-reaching inquiry, authorities said earlier this year they were rescreening over 58,000 Iraqi refugees already living in the U.S. amid concerns that lapses in immigration security may have allowed former insurgents and potential terrorists to enter the country.
The investigation was given urgency after U.S. intelligence agencies warned that al-Qaida leaders in Iraq and Yemen tried to target the refugee stream, or exploit other immigration loopholes, in an effort to infiltrate the country with operatives.
At a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing this year, Senator Joe Lieberman criticized the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for allegedly failing to check for fingerprints on all recovered bombs in Iraq. Experts said that’s often difficult however.
Yet, “I don’t understand why they would be behind by five or six years,” Lieberman reportedly said.
He added there was “no excuse” for the delay.
With pressure mounting on immigration authorities, especially Iraqi Chaldean Christians are now finding it more difficult to enter America, said Rafat Ita, a social
worker in the U.S. Detroit area where 160,000 Chaldeans reside in the largest settlement outside of Iraq.
Many of them are “desperate” to be reunited with family members now stranded overseas, Ita added.
Those fleeing Iraq leave behind a nation in turmoil.
There have been several deadly attacks against Iraqi Christians this year including in May when Christians said the body of 29-year-old Chaldean Christian construction worker Ashur Issa Yaqub was found with marks of severe torture and mutilation.
Al-Qaeda members, who kidnapped him in the northeastern city of Kirkuk, apparently demanded a roughly $100,000 ransom for his release and pressured his employer to fire him because he was a Christian.
In January, a group of “terrorists” reportedly attacked a Christian family in their house at Al-Karada quarter in Baghdad and killed a woman, Rafah Toma, who earlier survived a deadly attack on the nearby Syrian Catholic Church.
“During the months of November and December 2010, as the West was preparing itself to celebrate Christmas and New Year, some 30 more Christians were killed, and many others fled the dangerous cities of Baghdad and Mosul, to the safer regions of Kurdistan, in the hope to find peace and security,” added Open Doors, an internationally respected group supporting “persecuted Christians”.
Iraq became one “of the biggest movers” in the Open Doors 2011 ‘World Watch List’ (WLL) of the “worst” nations for Christians the group explained. “It moved from position 17 to 8”.
It cited a “high number” of anti-Christian attacks, which led to many casualties, and an increase of kidnapped Christians as among the reasons for moving Iraq to the top 10 of countries with the worst treatment of Christians.
“Two main acts of violence against Christians in 2010 were the bomb attack on buses full of Christian students in May and the terrorist attack on the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad at the end of October” Open Doors recalled.
“In the first incident, three Christian students were killed and 180 injured, many of whom are scarred or disabled for life. In the second…at least 58 Christians died and over 60 were injured”, the deadliest attack against Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003, Open Doors said.
In the year up to November 2010 Open Doors reported several other targeted killings of at least 90 Christians in the cities of Mosul, Baghdad and Kirkuk.
Iraq’s government has pledged to tackle extremism, stepping up security, including near its 375-mile (603-kilometer) border with Syria, amid fears militants will use turmoil there to enter into Iraq.
But the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, has warned that al-Qaida linked militants may want to increase their freedom of movement after the
last American soldiers leave by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Christians continue to flee. There are just over 300,000 Christians left in Iraq, less than half of their number in 1991, according to Open Doors estimates.
Those figures underscore the difficulties of Christian refugees seeking to be re-united with families already living in the United States, explained social worker Ita.
“These [Christian refugees] cannot go back to Iraq because they could be killed. Now they are stuck in neighboring countries where they cannot work, cannot go to school and cannot worship freely.”
With the U.S. now refusing entry to Iraqi Christian refugees, many lives have been shattered, Ita added.
“The only hope they have is to come to America and now that hope is in ruins,” Ita said. “We’re not a violent group, we’re Christians who believe in peace.”
The U.S. isn’t the only nation where refugees from the Middle East experience difficulties.
Hundreds of Christians, including Iraqis, also face hurdles in Europe, including in Austria, after the end of a U.S. program for religious minorities.
Under the American program since 1989 some 440,000 Christians, many complaining about persecution and Jews from the former Soviet Union, received refugee status in the U.S. (With DeCaro reported from the United States with additional reporting from Iraq; Bos from BosNewsLife News Center in Budapest, Hungary).