JERUSALEM (AP, December 25, 2011) — A rare clay seal found under Jerusalem's Old City appears to be linked to religious rituals practiced at the Jewish Temple 2,000 years ago, Israeli archaeologists said Sunday. The coin-sized seal found near the Jewish holy site at the Western Wall bears two Aramaic words meaning "pure for God." Archaeologist Ronny Reich of Haifa University said it dates from between the 1st century B.C. to 70 A.D. — the year Roman forces put down a Jewish revolt and destroyed the second of the two biblical temples in Jerusalem. The find marks the first discovery of a written seal from that period of Jerusalem's history, and appeared to be a unique physical artifact from ritual practice in the Temple, said Reich, co-director of the excavation.
Obama's "Signature Failure": U.S. intelligence warned of strife after Iraq pullout
WASHINGTON (Reuters) December 23, 2011- U.S. intelligence agencies warned that security gains in Iraq could degenerate into sectarian violence after a troop pullout that some officials say left the United States with little leverage in a country it occupied for nearly nine years. A wave of bombings that killed at least 72 people in Baghdad on Thursday provided further evidence of a deteriorating security situation just days after the last U.S. troops left Iraq. "This should be a surprise to no one that this is happening," said House of Representatives intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers. "Most people believed, the assessments that were coming out believed, that the sudden rapid withdrawal with no troop presence on the ground was going to leave this vacuum that would be filled with the kind of problems that you're seeing," Rogers, a Republican, said in an interview with Reuters. Rogers said the troop pullout reduced U.S. influence and that a chaotic Iraq plays into Iran's desire for increased influence in that region. "There was plenty of advice and counsel and analytical product that said this was a bad idea and here's what's going to happen if you do it," he said. "We see the beginnings of what was predicted was going to happen." Potential sectarian strife poses a political and policy challenge for President Barack Obama's administration, which ended the troop presence that began with the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ordered by then-President George W. Bush. In an interview with Reuters, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney attacked Obama on Thursday for what Romney termed a "signature failure" to keep some troops in Iraq to prevent it falling back into sectarian conflict. It was Bush, however, who agreed in his last months in office to the end-of-2011 deadline for a U.S. troop withdrawal. The Obama administration's negotiations with Iraq over a follow-on troop presence fell apart over a Pentagon demand that Iraq provide U.S. troops with immunity against prosecution for any crimes committed there.
After U.S. Withdrawal, Iraqi Political Standoff Raises Concern of 'Unraveling'
(Fox News, Dec 24, 2011)One week after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, a flare-up in sectarian tensions is threatening to not only invite new violence but tear apart the country's fragile political arrangement. Some officials fear the situation, if not properly handled, could reverse post-surge gains and plunge the country back into a climate of sectarian war. U.S. diplomats have conducted a flurry of phone calls and meetings over the past week in a bid to contain the problem and convince Iraq's political leaders to come together. At the heart of the dispute is a decision by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to issue an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. The vice president is accused of running hit squads against government officials years ago, but Hashemi denies it and has been holding out in Iraq's Kurdish region while Maliki demands he be brought into custody. Stoking the tensions, a wave of bombings ripped through mostly Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad Thursday, killing at least 69 and wounding nearly 200. The country's top Shiite cleric afterward blamed the politicians for creating an atmosphere for such attacks. Amid the chaos, Hashemi has been lambasting Maliki from afar, using a string of media interviews to accuse him of pushing the country toward catastrophe. In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, Hashemi warned the situation could spiral "beyond control," and likened Maliki to Saddam Hussein. Maliki in turn has suggested he might abandon a critical power-sharing agreement in Baghdad. Walid Phares, a Middle East analyst and Fox News contributor, said Saturday that the tensions are a reflection of conflicts that had been "frozen" -- but not resolved -- during the U.S. troop presence. "As soon as we are out, and there is no political consensus, everything is coming back," Phares said. While praising the U.S. for its military gains in the country, he said the broader political problems remain -- the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, and also the presence of Iranian influence which he said is provoking the minority Sunni population. "It's a spiraling process," Phares said.
NOTE: Walid Phares is an Aramaic Christian.
Obama betrays Iraq
The United States is mulling a far more subdued role in Iraq after pulling its troops out, and has no intention to send its forces back in despite a spike in violence, The New York Times reported on Sunday. US officials told the Times that President Barack Obama was adamant that the United States would not send troops back to Iraq, adding that even an American military presence likely would not have prevented the political crisis and coordinated attacks plaguing the country days after a US pullout. "There is a strong sense that we need to let events in Iraq play out," a senior administration official said. "There is not a great deal of appetite for re-engagement. We are not going to reinvade Iraq." But US military counterterrorism personnel could return to Iraq under CIA authority, if approved by the president. "As the US military has drawn down to zero in terms of combat troops, the US intelligence community has not done the same," a senior administration official told the Times. Another official said the administration has told Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that US economic, security and diplomatic ties with Iraq will be "colored" by how well the Shiite premier can maintain a coalition with Sunni and Kurdish leaders.
Palestinian Christians Pray for Threatened Valley (AFP News, December 23, 2011)
A handful of Palestinian Christians stand on a ridge under grey skies at an open-air mass, praying for protection for the sweeping valley that descends from their feet. For decades, the dwindling Christian community of Beit Jala and Bethlehem has joined its Muslim neighbours to work the land of the Cremisan Valley during the week, and picnic here with their families at the weekend. But the route of Israel's controversial separation barrier will soon cut them off from the valley, placing it on the Israeli side and out of their reach -- a route that residents say was designed to grab their land. Locals say the barrier is part of a long-standing Israeli attempt to annex territory belonging to the southern West Bank town of Bethlehem, effectively separating it from Jerusalem, which is five kilometres (three miles) away. "With this confiscation, Jerusalem and Bethlehem will no longer be connected. That's something that the Christian world should understand," said Xavier Abu Eid, a Palestine Liberation Organisation spokesman who comes from a Beit Jala family. Residents say the land grab is part of an Israeli plan to fragment the West Bank, and make the formation of a coherent Palestinian state impossible. In Bethlehem, it has dispossessed the area's once-thriving Christian community, pushing them to move overseas as their village lands are annexed to Jerusalem and eaten away by expanding settlements.
I've been to Beit Jala and to Bethlehem.
Syria's Alawites are secretive, unorthodox sect (Reuters, December 23, 2011)
PARIS (Reuters) - The clannishness, secrecy and tenacity of Syria's power elite around President Bashar al-Assad are hallmarks of the enigmatic Alawite faith that unites its members and arouses suspicion among the majority Sunnis. An oppressed minority for most of their history, Alawites suddenly took control in Syria in 1970 when Assad's father Hafez staged a coup that sidelined the Sunnis. He built a ferocious security apparatus based on fellow Alawite officers. This year's bloody struggle between Assad's forces and pro-democracy protesters, which has cost thousands of lives, splits the country along a minority-majority gulf made deeper by the fact many Sunnis call Alawites heretics and apostates. "The political animosities have developed over the past 41 years that the Assads have been in power, but the religious animosities go back many centuries," said Mohamad Bazzi, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Like most other Arab countries, Syria has seen conservative Islam spreading in recent decades. This has sharpened Sunni differences with the Alawites, who claim to be mainline Shi'ites and sometimes copy Sunni practices to play down differences. The government's brutal crackdown on protesters this year has also widened this split, Bazzi said, prompting some leaders of the mainly Sunni opposition Muslim Brotherhood to row back on a more moderate approach they had taken in recent years. "Lately some statements by leaders associated with the Brotherhood were very sectarian," he said. "Once the sectarian genie is out of the bottle, it's difficult to put it back in." Sunnis Muslims make up 74 percent of Syria's 22 million population, Alawites 12 percent, Christians 10 percent and Druze 3 percent. Ismailis, Yezidis and a few Jews make up the rest. AN UNCERTAIN OFFSHOOT The Alawite religion is often called "an offshoot of Shi'ism," Islam's largest minority sect, but that is something like referring to Christianity as "an offshoot of Judaism." Alawites broke away from Shi'ism over 1,000 years ago and retain some links to it, including the veneration of Ali, the cousin and son-in law of the Prophet Mohammad. But several beliefs differ sharply from traditional Islam. Named after Ali, Alawites believe he was divine, one of many manifestations of God in a line with Adam, Jesus, Mohammad, Socrates, Plato and some pre-Islamic sages from ancient Persia. To orthodox Muslims, this eclectic synthesis of Christian, Gnostic, Neoplatonic and Zoroastrian thought violates Islam's key tenet that "there is no God but God." Isolated in the mountains near Syria's Mediterranean coast, Alawites taught the Koran was to be read allegorically and preferred to pray at home rather than in mosques. They were also highly secretive, initiating only a minority of believers into their core dogma, including reincarnation and a divine Trinity, and into rituals including a rite of drinking consecrated wine similar to a Christian Mass. Like the nearby Druze, Alawites adopted the Shi'ite practice of taqiyya, or hiding their beliefs to avoid persecution. "Taqiyya makes a perfect qualification for membership in the mukhabarat, the ubiquitous intelligence/security apparatus that has dominated Syria's government for more than four decades," the British Islam expert Malise Ruthven wrote recently. FEARS OF REVENGE Oppressed during the Ottoman period, Alawites have played down their distinctive beliefs in recent decades to argue they were mainline Shi'ites like in Iran. This is partly to satisfy the constitutional rule that the president must be a Muslim. The outlawed Muslim Brotherhood called the Alawites infidels for decades. Leaders of the Sunni movement no longer say this openly, but nobody knows whether the rank and file is convinced. The ruling Baath Party is officially secular, which has helped Alawites win support as protectors of other minorities. "Hafez al-Assad constructed a minority system, with Christians, Druze and Ismailis, to rule over a Sunni Muslim country," said Andrew Tabler, Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Most of the protesters now are also Sunnis, so the current violence has affected the Sunni population more," he said. The tension that system produced makes Alawites, Christians and the other minorities fear bloody sectarian violence in revenge against them if Sunnis should regain power. "If there is a change of regime," Chaldean Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo told a conference in Venice last June, "It's the end of Christianity in Syria. I saw what happened in Iraq." Bazzi said a double car bombing in Damascus on Friday that killed 44 people could be a further escalation of Sunni violence against the Alawite-led state. "Syria was a major staging area for Sunni jihadis (attacking U.S. forces) in Iraq," he said. "Many of these networks are still in place in Syria. These are elements that view Shi'ites as heretics and Alawites as even more heretical." (Reporting By Tom Heneghan)
Syria's twin suicide bombings: Who's to blame? (The Week, Dec 23, 2011)
The state media says al Qaeda was behind two deadly blasts that killed dozens Friday. Others think the Assad regime may have orchestrated the attacks. Two car bombs outside state security facilities rocked the Syrian capital of Damascus Friday, killing at least 40 and injuring more than 100, according to officials. Syrian state media was quick to suggest that al Qaeda was behind the suicide bombings, but leaders of the opposition contend the attacks might have actually been orchestrated by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in a brutal PR ploy to justify his violence against protesters. Who is really behind the bombings? The bombings were "very mysterious because they happened in heavily guarded areas that are difficult to be penetrated by a car," Omar Idilbi, a member of the Syrian National Council, an umbrella group for those who oppose the regime, tells MSNBC. The timing is also quite convenient, given that it happened just a day after the Arab league arrived in Syria to assure that the regime ends its violent crackdown on protesters. Perhaps the blasts were orchestrated to "to make the Arab League and international public opinion believe that Syria is being subjected to acts of terrorism by members of al Qaeda" and therefore undercut the popular uprising.
"Syrian government blames terrorists as blasts kill 40, injure 150 others"
Either way, it benefits the regime: The attacks "are good news for the regime of President Hafez al-Assad, and bad news for the opposition protest movement," says Tony Karon at TIME. They neatly support Assad's narrative that the uprisings are "not a citizens' movement for democracy, but a sectarian, extremist terror campaign" and so justify his violent crackdowns. Still, while the bombings might benefit the regime's image, it's not unlikely that al Qaeda really is to blame, given Thursday's attacks in Baghdad, apparently by Sunni jihadists, and the fact that Sunni insurgents in Iraq have close ties with Sunni extremists in Syria across the border. While it's certainly feasible that the regime could have orchestrated the attacks, "it would also be naive to deny the existence of a jihadist element" within the opposition movement.
"Why the Damascus bombing is better news for Syria's regime than for its opposition"
Having lived in Syria and being familiar with the regime-I have no doubt that the regime set off these explosives. The regime was also funneling insurgents into Iraq to kill US troops in Iraq and Iraqi civilians. The regime was also responsible for the 1982 suicide bombing in Lebanon that killed 200 US marines. The regime has done this before-that is set off a suicide bomb and claim that it was the victim of a terrorist attack. It actually did it shortly before one of my prior visits to Syria-and I visited the site of the supposed terrorist attack. Also, Syria was behind the assassination (by suicide attack) of President Harriri of Lebanon and during its occupation of Lebanon was behind the assassination of many Lebanese Christian leaders. The regime may have bought itself some time by carrying out these attacks-but, the temporary support will wear off-and I predict that by the end of the year 2012-Bashir Assad will be have fled the country or we will see his dead body being dragged through the streets. If the Alawites had any wisdom-they would implement a peaceful transfer of power now-but instead we will see more blood in the streets-but in the end it will be Alawite blood. The Alawites have done nothing for the Christians of Syria. I lived there and I know by personal observation that the Alawites have worked to weaken and undermine Syrian Christianity. I think the Syrian Christians should fear the Alawites more than they do a free Syria. Even though they are supposedly not true Muslims-the Alawites have in recent years identified themselves with radical Shiite Islam, they ARE (for all intents and purposes) Hezbollah and Syria is now a satellite/colony/protectorate of Iran.
NEWS: Attacks on Religious Freedom in the US (and Nigeria)
Christmas Day 2012 church attack in Nigeria leaves over 30 Nigerian Christians dead. - The White House condemned the violent attacks in Nigeria on Sunday, which it said appeared to be acts of terrorism. Great deduction, Sherlock! Now we can all see why the Democrats say that Obama is the world's smartest man.
Tebow under attack for expressing his faith-even mocked on "Saturday Night Live." His opponents ask, "What if he were a Muslim?" You mean like Caius Clay-Mohammed Ali, Karrem Abdul-Jabbar, or Hakeem Olijuan-all Muslim sports stars who all make very public proclamations of their Islamic faith? Also-students have been threatened with expulsion for "tebowing" (kneeling in prayer) in school. So we see that it is acceptable for a Muslim athlete to be vocal about their faith-but it is socially unacceptable for a Christian to do so.
Kentucky affirms in its homeland security law-that all security comes from the Almighty. Liberals are of course suing to have the "religious" language removed. (from Fox News) The U.S. Department of Homeland Security relies on surveillance, vigilance, and intrusive airport screeners to keep Americans safe. But in the state of Kentucky that's not good enough, according to state Rep. Tom Riner, an ordained Baptist minister who supports a 2006 state law requiring all homeland security documents to recognize humanity's dependence on God. "The safety and security of the state cannot be achieved apart from recognizing our dependence upon God," Riner told Fox News recently near his home in Louisville. "We believe dependence on God is essential. ... What the founding fathers stated and what every president has stated, is their reliance and recognition of Almighty God, that's what we're doing," he said. Edwin Kagin, an atheist who is now suing Kentucky over the law, disagrees. "Oh, it requires much more than that," he said. Commonwealth law commands the state's Department of Homeland Security to prominently display a plaque outside its offices that says: "The safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon Almighty God." State law also requires all department literature to state the same. "It's outrageous," said Kagin. "It is something that is specifically prohibited by the constitutions of both the United States and Kentucky." Kagin said the requirement sounds like something more likely to be demanded by religious extremists in the Middle East. "What if the law said we cannot be safe without reliance on Allah, perhaps, or the flying spaghetti monster or anything you could come up with?" he said. "A law such as this is a step toward establishing a theocracy in our state." Read more: http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2011/12/15/taking-liberties-almighty-security/#ixzz1hZCwJzwS
Texas town stands against "Freedom from Religion Foundations" attempt to force them to remove their nativity scene: The 'War On Christmas' Messes With The Wrong Man; Meet Joe Hall, Henderson County CommissionerJoe Hall, the Henderson County (Texas) Commissioner, is a self proclaimed country boy serving out his last term as an elected official. He's also probably the last man who wants to be told by a group from a different state to take down a nativity scene. The fight began when the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin, sent a letter to Henderson County in Athens, Texas, which is 1,044 miles away. They said that a resident contacted them about a nativity display, and, deeming it unconstitutional, asked that it either be removed, or a sign bearing a solstice poem — proclaiming there to be no gods or heaven — be placed nearby. Joe Hall was not appreciative of the correspondence. "I'm a country boy," Hall told News 8, while staring icily into the camera. "You come to my house looking for a fight, you're gonna get one. And that's from the bottom of my heart." When asked by News 8′s Craig Civale if the county would remove the display, Hall dug in further. "We'll remove it when hell freezes over." He later added, "I ain't gonna back down. I haven't, and I won't." Billy Hallowell of The Blaze says that area pastors are "assembling a rally in support of the nativity scene." Hall will be there. The nativity, according to officials, has been up for 35 years without incident. "War on Christmas" stories all too often feature suited up city officials sheepishly talking about having to comply with requests to remove or crowd a city's nativity. Henderson County Commissioner Joe Hall, simply for media purposes alone, is a breath of fresh air. And he cannot be appreciated by just reading his quotes. Please, if you watch nothing else today, watch the video of his interview below, courtesy of News 8 (WFAA).
It is refreshing to finally see people take a stand. If people had stood up before our country wouldn't be in the mess we find ourselves in today.
Congress cannot say "Merry Christmas" in letters to their constituents-they have to say "Seasons Greetings" or "Happy Holidays." (This rule applies to free mail-the rule is that if they say "Merry Christmas" they will have to pay postage!
Strongly recommended: David Horowitz's TV "The Islamists Within" part one and part two. Featuring Middle Eastern Christians Raymond Ibraheim and Robert Spencer.
Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People Where are the human images of Arabs and Arab Americans? That's the topic of a new film called "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People." The book and the film explore the American cinematic landscape to reveal a stark pattern of Arab stereotyping and its disturbing similarity to anti-Semitic and other racist caricatures through history. Film and book byJack Shaheen. (I read about this in an article entitled "Don't tell anyone your real name or you'll never work again" by Christian Blauvel-Entertainment Weekly, Oct 14, 2011) I think this "Reel Bad Arabs" stuff is non-sense. Hollywood doesn't vilify Arabs more than Russians or any other ethnicities. In fact, I believe that Hollywood is afraid of portraying Arabs negatively. An example would be the movie "Sum of All Fears" based on a novel about Muslim terrorists-but changed in the movie to white supremacists. Many movies, such as the Indiana Jones movies, portray Arab characters in a positive light-and the movie "the Wind and the Lion." In reality, many movies often portray Arabs or Muslims as victims or in a heroic manner-such as "The Siege," "Rendition," "The Kite Runner," The Green Zone," "Iron Man" and ect. The real issue here is the cult of victimization. Everyone wants to feel that they are a victim somehow. In the movie "Slumdog Millionaire" tells the story of a poor, persecuted and mistreated Muslim of India. Ironically, the movie was released during the Bombay Islamic terrorist attacks (which didn't warrant cover stories in Time or Newsweek-because they are cowards afraid of running stories that could portray Islam in a negative light). Many Arabs such as F. Murray Abraham (F. stands for Fareed), Tony Shalboub and Shohreh Aghdashloo have has successful movie careers. Aghdashloo was inspired by Arnold Schwarteneggar to use her real Iranian name instead of a stage name. It isn't Arabs who are vilified by Hollywood-it is Evangelical Christians who are! Chuck Norris says he doesn't fell that he has been discriminated against as a conservative-but that is because due to his work with his friend Bruce Lee he was established and already had name recognition. It is conservatives and Born-again Christians who are consistently portrayed in a negative light by Hollywood. Also, most of the negative "stereotypes" that exist were created by Arabs/Muslims themselves. Before 9-11, most terrorist incidents were Islamic and that is still the case. Arabs need to look in the mirror to see who is most to blame for negative images of Muslims and Arabs in the public. Now, Christians also, to a lesser extent may be responsible for negative views that some people have of Christians-but Hollywood has a campaign of hate against Christianity.
Christianity May Be Eradicated in Iraq and Afghanistan, Says Chair of U.S. Religious Freedom Commission By Terence P. Jeffrey, CNS News, December 22, 2011 (CNSNews.com) - Half or more of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to have left the country, with Christian leaders warning that the consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in Iraq," USCIRF said in its annual report. "In 2003, there were thought to be 800,000 to 1.4 million Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East members, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), Protestants, and Evangelicals in Iraq. Today, community leaders estimate the number of Christians to be around 500,000." Iraqi Christians have been targeted by murderous attacks in recent years, according to USCIRF. In 2010, for example, al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists killed 50 people and wounded 60 more, during Mass, at a Catholic church in Baghdad. Among those the terrorists killed were two priests. In the months following the massacre, a series of bombing attacks on homes in Baghdad killed at least seven Christians and wounded 50 more. Christians were also shot to death in Baghdad and Mosul, while 70 Christian students were injured by a roadside bomb attack on a convoy of buses taking them to a university in Mosul. A Christian cardiologist was attacked by gunmen who targeted him at the medical clinic where he worked. According to Leo, the Iraqi government has not taken adequate steps to protect Christians or prosecute those who attack them.
[Please read the rest of this excellent article at my blog www.aramaicherald.blogspot.com or view the article and the video interview at www.CNSNews.com.] www.youtube.com/aramaic12, firstname.lastname@example.org Stephen MissickPO Box 882, Shepherd, TX, 77371
Christianity May Be Eradicated in Iraq and Afghanistan, Says Chair of U.S. Religious Freedom Commission By Terence P. Jeffrey, CNS News, December 22, 2011 (CNSNews.com) -
Despite long-term U.S. military occupations aimed at establishing representative governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Christianity now faces the real threat of eradication in those countries because of severe and persistent persecution of Christians there, according to the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Similarly, despite the "Arab Spring" rebellion in Egypt earlier this year, the survival of Christianity is also threatened in that country because of the escalating persecution of Christians. "We are looking at two different countries where the United States invaded, occupied, changed their governments in the last decade--Iraq and Afghanistan--where it's possible Christianity might be eradicated in our lifetime?" CNSNews.com asked USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo in a video interview. "Yes," said Leo, ""and, unfortunately, that is sort of the pattern throughout the Middle Eastern region. The flight of Christians out of the region is unprecedented and it's increasing year by year. It's a very, very alarming situation." In Egypt, according to Leo, anti-Christian violence and discrimination may inspire a mass migration of that nation's Coptic Christian population, thus achieving a strategic goal sought by radical Muslims. "The radical Islamists would accomplish their goal, if they drove the Coptic Christians out of the country, absolutely," Leo told CNSNews.com in an Online With Terry Jeffrey interview.
[To see the entire interview, click on the video below. Note well: At the time the interview was taped it was unclear whether Congress would reauthorize USCIRF. Last Friday, Congress did pass legislation to do so, and the commission will remain in existence.]
Leo, who also serves as vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, was initially appointed and reappointed to USCIRF by President George W. Bush, and most recently was reappointed again by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.).
In its official report published earlier this year, USCRIF said that Christian leaders in Iraq were themselves warning of the end of Christianity in their country.
"Half or more of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to have left the country, with Christian leaders warning that the consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in Iraq," USCIRF said in its annual report. "In 2003, there were thought to be 800,000 to 1.4 million Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East members, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), Protestants, and Evangelicals in Iraq. Today, community leaders estimate the number of Christians to be around 500,000."
Iraqi Christians have been targeted by murderous attacks in recent years, according to USCIRF. In 2010, for example, al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists killed 50 people and wounded 60 more, during Mass, at a Catholic church in Baghdad. Among those the terrorists killed were two priests. In the months following the massacre, a series of bombing attacks on homes in Baghdad killed at least seven Christians and wounded 50 more. Christians were also shot to death in Baghdad and Mosul, while 70 Christian students were injured by a roadside bomb attack on a convoy of buses taking them to a university in Mosul.
A Christian cardiologist was attacked by gunmen who targeted him at the medical clinic where he worked.
According to Leo, the Iraqi government has not taken adequate steps to protect Christians or prosecute those who attack them.
"One of the big problems from the very beginning was that our country and others were unwilling to acknowledge that the fight in Iraq was largely a sectarian conflict and there wasn't enough emphasis placed on the flight of Christians and other religious minorities, particularly in the northern part of Iraq," said Leo.
"So, the strategy didn't take into account the fact that you were going to have a huge, huge flight of Christians out of the country, and then you were going to have the same kind of impunity or privately driven violence that we were talking about in Pakistan, but this time in Iraq," Leo said.
"That is precisely what has happened," he said. "So, it is very ironic that here we are trying to stabilize and democratize a country and at the same time we are losing large percentages of religious minorities … which have always been such an important part of the Iraqi fabric of society, holding it together. And so that is a very, very serious problem."
CNSNews.com asked Leo what kind of leverage and what types of instruments the U.S. would have to protect the Christian population in Iraq once President Obama had withdrawn all U.S. forces from the country.
"I have no idea," Leo said. "I'm very, very concerned about what will happen after our presence is completely gone, and I don't know how we continue to put pressure on the Iraqi government and on the security forces and others in Iraq to protect the Christians in the absence of any presence."
USCIRF asked that the State Department officially name Iraq as a "country of particular concern" for the lack of religious freedom there, but the State Department declined to do so.
In Afghanistan, Leo says, a constitution that was drafted with the help of the United States government has effectively given the Afghan government license to deny religious liberty to people who adhere to minority faiths, including Christianity.
"Conditions for religious freedom remain exceedingly poor for minority religious communities and dissenting members of the majority faith, despite the presence of U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan for almost 10 years and the substantial investment of lives, resources, and expertise by the United States and the international community," says the USCIRF report. "The 2004 Afghan constitution has effectively established Islamic law as the law of the land."
"In the past year," says the USCIRF report, "the small and vulnerable Christian community experienced a spike in government arrests, with Christians being detained and some jailed for the crime of apostasy."
The State Department has reported that in March 2010 the last public Christian church in Afghanistan was razed.
"This is one of the saddest cases that we look at every year," said Leo.
"Speaking personally, I wrote a separate opinion in the case of Afghanistan," he said. "I think one of the sources of the problem was way back when we helped hammer out a constitution for the new Afghanistan. In that constitution, there is what we call a repugnancy clause, which basically says anything that's inconsistent with Sharia principles is violative of this constitution. That clause, no matter what else is in the constitution, basically forecloses the kind of reform that you're looking for, because any extreme religious sub-sect can impose its radical view of Sharia and enshrine it in the constitutional system in Afghanistan. And if that's the kind of government system they have, there is no real way to ensure freedom of religion broadly speaking. There's no way to ensure that religious minorities are going to have freedom in law."
Leo is uncertain religious freedom can ever recover in Afghanistan from the damage done by the new Afghan constitution.
"The constitution drafting process with which we were involved was a disaster and I'm not sure Afghanistan can ever fully recover from the damage that we inflicted by not holding the line on the kind of constitution drafting that we should have been pushing for," he said.
He rejects the argument made by those who point to language elsewhere in Afghanistan's Constitution that says Afghanistan will abide by international agreements that call for respecting human rights.
CNSNews.com asked: "So Islamic apostasy laws that hold it a capital offense for someone to convert to Christianity are legitimate under the Afghan constitution as it was written?"
"Yeah," said Leo. "There are cute-by-half scholars who will tell you that it's not because there is another provision in the constitution that says they'll abide by international agreements. Those who know how the world really works will tell you that a repugnancy clause is what it says. It is a repugnancy clause that trumps everything else in the constitution. So the bottom line is even though Afghanistan has been a party to a lot of these international agreements, they have essentially reserved on them and they have created their own distinctions and I don't think there is really any hope that the country is going to begin abiding by those human rights agreements.
"And they do in fact prosecute people for apostasy?" asked CNSNews.com.
"They do," said Leo, pointing out that "there were a couple of instances over the past year where Christian converts where quietly released--thanks to the U.S."
"So are we looking at an Afghanistan where after the United States leaves Christianity is eradicated there?" asked CNSNews.com
"Unfortunately I think that's where things are headed," said Leo.
Egypt, he says, is headed down a similar path.
Leo and follow religious freedom commissioners, Nina Shea and Elizabeth Prodromou, filed a separate statement attached to the section of the full commission's report that focuses on Egypt.
"We write separately to underscore the concern that Egypt is on a trajectory that is part of a broader trend toward the irreparable and severe diminution of Christian and religious minority populations," the three commissioners said.
"In several countries covered in this report—Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—the non-Muslim religious minority communities are facing existential threats while experiencing varying degrees and manifestations of intolerance and injustice," they said.
"By far, the largest non-Muslim minority community among these countries is Egypt's Copts, numbering between 8 million and 12 million," they wrote. "A year and a half ago, Coptic worshippers were massacred during a Christmas Eve attack on their church in Naga Hammadi in southern Egypt.
"This year," the commissioners said, "a crowded church near Alexandria was bombed by militants at New Year, and several Coptic villages have been targeted by pogrom-like mob violence. Attacks against Copts were carried out largely with impunity under an indifferent Mubarak regime. A recent announcement that the rising Muslim Brotherhood movement would seek the imposition of Islamic law in Egypt is now sending shock waves through the Coptic community."
In October, after the USCIRF report was published, a crowd of Coptic Christians in Cairo protesting the burning of a Coptic church were attacked by Egyptian security forces, operating under the authority of the post-Mubarak regime, who reportedly shot and killed 24 protesters and wounded 300 more.
"The Arab spring got a cold snap," says Leo, "and the bottom line is I'm not sure whether there is going to be much of a crop at the end of the day."
"With what's going on in Egypt, with the uncertainties that exist, there's very little incentive for a young Coptic Christian to stay in the county," he said. "It wouldn't surprise me in the least if you saw the same basic trajectory in Egypt that you see in quite a number of other countries which is to say they just get up and they leave."
"The problem is that even under Mubarak, the courts, the prosecutors, the police weren't really investigating and bringing to justice the people who are really doing this kind of stuff," said Leo. "But then you have to compound that problem with you may actually have a government that steps up the official repression of religion."
"You may see laws that may further restrict the kinds of churches or other gathering places that Christians can have," said Leo. "You could potentially see upticks in discrimination against Coptic Christians in hiring and in education. Those are the kinds of things that the Coptics really have to be worried about. They are a fairly successful community in Egypt, so if they start seeing state repression through discriminatory laws, that's going to create huge incentives for the Coptic Christian community to up and leave--especially the younger ones who feel they have a bright future ahead of them."
For the first time ever, USCIRF recommended this year that the State Department list Egypt as a "country of particular" for its denial of religious freedom.
The State Department declined to do so.
Leo argues that the administration must find a way soon to get the Egyptian government to protect its own Christian population or it will be too late.
"There needs to be a tie-in between the enormous aid we give to Egypt and the protection of communities," said Leo. "We haven't seen that tie in yet. And it is complicated because security and police forces are not what they should be. And it's not clear how you would funnel transitional aid and support to help deal with this problem. But we've got to start putting on the problem-solving hat and really trying to figure this out and we need to step up our efforts here."
"We've seen frustration on the part of the administration that they are just not sure how to do this," said Leo. "I understand it and I'm sympathetic to it. But it's time to try to harness some of that frustration to some entrepreneurial and edgy ideas that get the Egyptian government where it needs to be--and those probably need to be behind the scenes. And that's' fine, but something has to be done and has to be done now.
"There is very little time left," he said.