Iraq’s vanishing Christians

One church leader is pointing the finger at the West to explain the disappearance of Iraq’s Christians, writes Salah Nasrawi
As the mass exodus of Iraq’s Christians continues, so does the call for ending the plight of those who have remained. Like Iraq’s ancient Jewish community before them, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities may soon cease to exist.

The disappearance of Iraq’s religious minorities has been a troubling trend since the US-led invasion in 2003, and it has threatened to end the cultural diversity of Iraq.  As the violence in the country spikes and religious intolerance grows, many Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and other minority community members are leaving the country.

Last week, the head of the Iraqi Catholic Church sent a chilling warning that Iraq’s 2,000-year-old Christian community is on the brink of extinction as new waves of Christians take the journey of exodus.

The exodus is largely blamed on the worsening security since the US-led invasion that toppled former president Saddam Hussein’s regime. Christians have suffered abuses by Muslim extremists and militias, including brutal attacks, death threats and forcible seizure of property.

But Chaldean patriarch Louis Sako now believes that intervention by the West in the region has exacerbated the problem by producing more chaos and conflict in the war-ravaged country, and it is this that has been driving Christians to flee.

Iraq’s Christians of different denominations were estimated at two million, or some five per cent of the population, prior to the US-led invasion. Now that number is below 450,000.

Christianity in Iraq dates back to St. Thomas, who brought the faith to ancient Mesopotamia and the two main Iraqi denominations, Chaldean and Assyrian, still survive from that period.

Since he was ordained as patriarch of Babylon and the Chaldeans in February 2013, Sako has raised the alarm about the dramatic shrinking of the Christian population in one of its oldest homes.

Sako, whose election raised hopes of stemming the tide of Iraqi Christians fleeing the country, has described the exodus as a “disaster” and warned that the number of Christians in Iraq would dwindle to a few thousand in the coming 10 years.

But in his most scathing criticism of western governments to date last week, Sako said facilities provided by Western governments to allow Iraqi Christians to leave had aggravated the situation.

“1,400 years of Islam could not uproot us from our land and our churches, while the policies of the West [have] scattered us and distributed us all around the world,” declared Sako.

“Intervention by the West in the region did not solve the problems… but on the contrary it produced more chaos and conflict,” he reportedly told a congregation in the northern city of Kirkuk.

The massive migration was triggered by the security deterioration following the US-led invasion, the sectarian tension it unleashed, and the rise of Islamist-oriented groups to power.

Though other Iraqis have suffered from terrorism, Christians have been targeted largely for being an ethnic and religious minority whose cultural characteristics are different from those of the dominant Muslim groups in Iraq.

About 1,000 Christians may have been killed in the violence since the US-led invasion of Iraq, with dozens of churches being attacked.

Thousands of Christian families left Baghdad and other cities following the bombing of a church in Baghdad in 2010 that killed 57 people and wounded dozens of others.

In addition to the violence and intimidation, Christians have been prone to pressure from local militias to leave their homes or land. Church leaders and rights groups have been reporting increasing forcible seizures of homes belonging to Christians in Baghdad.

Land seizures and annexations of Christian villages by the Kurdish autonomous authorities have also been documented. Most of the annexations are in the northern province of Nineveh, which includes the largest remaining concentration of Christians in Iraq.

Neither the central government nor the courts have done anything to try to protect Christian property.

The Iraqi government’s response to threats to attack churches in Baghdad was to build high concrete walls around the main churches and to increase security. Yet, the government has failed to end the climate of fear surrounding the Christians.

Life for Iraq’s remaining Christian population remains extremely difficult. Those who stay in Iraq live in fear of violence, and they are subject to routine intimidation.

Other challenges include economic hardships ranging from high unemployment to closure of their businesses due to violence or intimidation or simply the lack of equal opportunities.

Worn out by the unabated chaos, Christians who have remained in Iraq have been contemplating solutions to their dilemma short of departing.  

Some Christians have been talking about an autonomous zone in the traditional Christian-dominated areas in northern Iraq. Such an entity would give the Christians the opportunity for self-rule, including policing their areas and securing their economic interests.

Detractors, however, say that the so-called Nineveh Plain Project would have enormous consequences for the Christian community in Iraq, moving the problem from one of human rights violations to a multi-ethnic geopolitical dispute.  

They say that the idea entails huge risks, including possible accusations of Christians trying to divide Iraq geographically. Moreover, the autonomous zone would be in the so-called disputed areas, which the Kurdistan Regional Government claims as part of the Kurdish enclave.

They also argue that the entity would divide Christians themselves between those who would be within the zone and the rest of the Christian community in Iraq.    

Others argue that the Iraqi Christians should work closely with other communities for national integration, peace, justice and coexistence and to contribute to restoring stability and start rebuilding the devastated nation.

Sako did not provide details about the West’s involvement in the Iraqi Christians’ wholesale migration, but the Church and political leaders have been talking about the increasing tendencies of some Western embassies in the region to facilitating the granting of asylum visas for Iraqi Christians.

In November last year, Pope Francis met with several Middle Eastern church leaders privately to discuss the current migration and later said that the Roman Catholic Church “would not accept” a Middle East without Christians.

Some religious and political leaders are also blaming world refugee and immigration organisations for encouraging the Iraqi Christians to emigrate, triggering old accusations that Western nations are plotting to displace the Christians from their Middle Eastern homelands.

Unfortunately, the dilemma of Iraq’s Christians is being manipulated in the echo-chamber of Middle East politics, where it has been reinforced to serve larger geopolitical agendas, in particular those influenced by prophesies of evangelical revival or the US political scientist Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”.

For many observers, the migration of Iraq’s Christians is reminiscent of the exodus of Iraqi Jews in the course of the creation of Israel in the 1940s. Thousands of Iraqi Jews, part of one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in the world that goes back to the Babylonian Captivity, were “persuaded” to leave the country.

Like Jews from other lands, Iraq’s Jews did not migrate willingly to Israel, but were “encouraged” to leave by the Zionist movement which directed them to head to Israel. The main reason was that the nascent state wanted to fill the land acquired from the expelled Palestinians with as many Jews as possible.

Indeed, the story of the massive emigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel in what was described as among the most dramatic events of Jewish exodus from the Arab world is also a cautionary tale.

Today, there is a sizable Iraqi-Jewish community around the world, numbering nearly three-quarters of a million. Most of them live in Israel, while others opted to live in the United States and other Western countries.

If history serves as a parallel, the demographic changes this time will have far-reaching consequences. The area, which prides itself as being the birthplace of humanity’s three major religions and has been characterised by its cultural diversity for millennium, will cease to exist in its present form.      

What Sako is proposing is that the West should not encourage Christians to leave the region. Instead, Western governments and Churches in the West should help with the financing of particular projects that will enable Christians to stay and improve their living conditions.

Community leaders have been urging Western countries to do as much as they can to ensure that Iraqi Christians are protected by the government. They also urge them to channel more funds to provide them with their needs, such as schools, healthcare and jobs.

Like his predecessor’s pleas which died a quiet death with barely any consideration, Sako’s warnings are expected to fall on deaf ears.

It is unlikely that Western countries will commit themselves to a policy that would discourage Iraqi Christians from emigrating from their country.

Already, the Western powers are keen to accept Iraqi Christian refugees because Iraqi and other Middle East Christians have become fair game on the larger Middle East chessboard. 

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