He refused to leave Baghdad, even after the day last year when masked Sunni gunmen forced him and eight co-workers to line up against a wall and said, "Say your prayers." An Assyrian Christian, Rayid Albert closed his eyes and prayed to Jesus as the killers opened fire. He alone survived, shot seven times. But a month ago a note was left at his front door, warning, "You have three choices: change your religion, leave or pay the jeziya"—a tax on Christians levied by ancient Islamic rulers.
Across the lands of the Bible, Christians like Albert and his family are abandoning their homes. According to the World Council of Churches, the region's Christian population has plunged from 12 million to 2 million in the past 10 years.
The Greek Orthodox archbishop in Jerusalem, where only 12,000 Christians remain, is pleading with his followers not to leave. "We have to persevere," says Theodosios Atallah Hanna. "How can the land of Jesus Christ stay without Christians?" The proportion of Christians in Bethlehem, once 85 percent, is now 20 percent.
Nowhere is the exodus more extreme than in Iraq. Before the war, members of the Assyrian and Chaldean rites, along with smaller numbers of Armenians and others, constituted roughly 1.2 million of the country's 25 million people. Most sources agree that well over half of those Christians have fled the country now, and many or most of the rest have been internally displaced, but some estimates are far more drastic. According to the Roman Catholic relief organization Caritas, the number of Christians in Iraq had plummeted to 25,000 by last year.
Of the 1.7 million Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, half are Christians, says Father Raymond Moussalli, a Chaldean vicar who now says mass every night in a basement in Amman. "The government of Saddam used to protect us," he says. "Mr. Bush doesn't protect us. The Shia don't protect us. No Christian was persecuted under Saddam for being Christian."
[Excerpted from Newsweek]