A Baghdad clergyman estimates that 90 percent of Iraq's Christians, once thought to number over a million, have either fled or have been murdered by Islamic extremists.
From the time of Jesus, there have been Christians in what is now Iraq. The Christian community took root there after the Apostle Thomas headed east.
But now, after nearly 2,000 years, Iraqi Christians are being hunted, murdered and forced to flee -- persecuted on a biblical scale in Iraq's religious civil war. You'd have to be mad to hold a Christian service in Iraq today, but if you must, then the vicar of Baghdad is your man. He's the Reverend Canon Andrew White, an Anglican chaplain who suffers from multiple sclerosis and from a fanatical determination to save the last Iraqi Christians from the purge.
White invited 60 Minutes cameras and correspondent Scott Pelley to an underground Baghdad church service for what's left of his congregation. White's parishioners are risking their lives to celebrate their faith.
"The room is full of children, it’s full of women, but I don’t see the men. Where are they?" Pelley remarked.
"They are mainly killed. Some are kidnapped. Some are killed. In the last six months things have got particularly bad for the Christians. Here in this church, all of my leadership were originally taken and killed," White explained. "All dead. But we never got their bodies back. This is one of the problems. I regularly do funerals here but it's not easy to get the bodies."
Many Iraqi Christians' churches are destroyed or abandoned. The congregation is smuggled in and out of this secret sanctuary. Even letting 60 Minutes come to the service was a terrible risk. White is among the last Christian ministers here, a savior with crosses to bear. Larger than life, stricken with MS, and by his own reckoning, driven a little bit mad.
He was first sent to Baghdad by the Archbishop of Canterbury nine years ago, well before the Christian persecution.
"You were here during Saddam’s reign. And now after. Which was better? Which was worse?" Pelley asked.
"The situation now is clearly worse” than under Saddam, White replied.
"There’s no comparison between Iraq now and then," he told Pelley. "Things are the most difficult they have ever been for Christians. Probably ever in history. They’ve never known it like now."
"Wait a minute, Christians have been here for 2,000 years," Pelley remarked.
"Yes," White said.
"And it’s now the worst it has ever been," Pelley replied.
To understand the history of Iraqi Christianity, start with the Last Supper. One saint to the right of Jesus is the Apostle Thomas, who took the gospel and headed east after the death of Christ.
In modern times, under Saddam, Christians were treated much the same as Muslims; Saddam's right hand man, Tariq Aziz, was Christian.
Before the war, it's estimated there were about a million Christians in Iraq. They were a small minority, but free to worship, free to build churches, and free to speak the ancient language of Jesus, Aramaic. But, after the invasion, Muslim militants launched a war on each other and the cross.
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