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Christians Under Fire In The Mideast

A woman lights a candle for the siege victims at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, Iraq.

The Iraqi Interior Minister announced that 17 members of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida were arrested.

There is some good news for the beleaguered Christian community in Iraq. The Iraqi Interior Minister announced that 17 members of extremist groups affiliated with al-Qaida were arrested in connection with the attack on a Christian cathedral in Baghdad on October 31st, which killed 56 people. Among those apprehended was Huthaifa al-Batawi, the Baghdad chief of Islamic State of Iraq, the al-Qaida front group which carried out the attack.

Iraqi authorities also seized 6 tons of explosives and toxic gas in the properties raided. They said the arrests had helped prevent several attacks, including ones targeting Baghdad's Green Zone -- an area which is home to several embassies and government buildings.

After the attack on Our Lady of Salvation cathedral, al-Qaida declared Christians everywhere "legitimate targets." That announcement was followed by a string of bombings targeting Christian homes and shops in Baghdad that killed six more people. It is little wonder that Christians have left Iraq in droves. Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, but their numbers have since shrunk to around 500,000 in the face of continued persecution.

But Christians are not only fleeing Iraq. In fact, according to the Vatican, from Egypt to Iran, 17 million have left due to hostile environments. In Algeria, four converts to Christianity are facing trial for attempting to open a protestant place of worship. In Egypt, Christian Copts, who represent about 10 percent of Egypt's population, have taken to the streets over their frustration with construction delays of a church in the Cairo suburb of Giza. In Iran, the government bans proselytizing by Christian groups, has closed some churches and regularly arrests Christian converts. And in Saudi Arabia the government bans any public observance outside of Islam.

Clearly, religious freedom and Christianity in particular are under threat from authoritarian regimes and violent extremist groups like al-Qaida. The United States, said U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, "wants to see religious freedom available universally. And we want to advocate for the brave men and women who around the world persist in practicing their beliefs in the face of hostility and violence."