The tragic exodus of Iraqi Christians
At the Middle East synod held at the Vatican, there was little disagreement that the largest number of Christians persecuted, and the most significant exodus of Christians in recent years has been those from Iraq where nearly half of the Christians have fled the country since 2003. Many believe that the primary reason for the mass exodus is from fear of being kidnapped and killed.
By Austen Ivereigh
10/18/2010 Iraq, Vatican City (America Magazine) – Of all the beleaguered Christian communities of the Middle East, the most dramatically affected in the past few years is without doubt Iraq’s. Trying to put numbers on the dramatic exodus of Christians is not easy, however, as I discovered when four synod participants sat down this afternoon with journalists close to St Peter’s Square.
But while they didn’t always agree on the numbers, there was a consensus on the big picture: something close to two-thirds of the more than 1m million Iraqi Christians have sought exile abroad since the first Gulf War, the overwhelming majority in the years since the US-led occupation of 2003.
Although emigration began in the early 1990s, there were around 800,000 Christians in Iraq at the time of the occupation; now there are about 450,000. Tens of thousands are in Jordan, and elsewhere in the Middle East, while many have found new homes in Europe, North America and Australia. Fr Raymond Mousalli, Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar in Amman, Jordan, said there were now 30,000 Chaldeans — the largest denomination of Iraqi Christians — in Australia, 20,000 in Canada, 17,000 in Sweden, and thousands more in Detroit, San Diego and Chicago.
Within Iraq, too, Christians have been on the move, to the point where there are now more Iraqi Christians in Kurdistan, close to the Turkish border, than in their traditional heartlands of Baghdad, Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk. Some 200,000 have moved there in the past few years, fleeing sectarian violence and fears of kidnapping.
The Baghdad Catholic population (Chaldeans, Assyrians, Armenians and Latins) is now down to about 150,000, spread over 18 parishes, some of which are only open once a month. (There are 24 churches in total in the city). To give some sense of how this compares with just a few years ago, take the area known as Dora, which used to be nicknamed “the Vatican of Iraq”. Before 2003 there were seven churches, a seminary and a bible college there. All are now closed.
On one level, what caused the exodus couldn’t be clearer: violence, instability and poverty. But which was the single largest factor? According to Fr Sameer Shaba Maroki OP, professor of Eastern theology at the Babel College in Irbil, the “primary cause” is fear. Although it is true that people are leaving because of economic difficulties, he said, the economic situation for Iraqis is not worse now than during the long years of sanctions. The key factor has been the fear of kidnappings.
Among the kidnap victims have been two bishops and more than a dozen priests. One of the bishops was killed. The other was returned unharmed, refusing to say whether a ransom had been paid (kidnappers usually demand silence). The priests, said Fr Maroki, “still bear the scars of where they were tortured”.
Churches have also been the target of car bombs. Although not specifically desecrated, more than 20 churches have been firebombed, some so badly they have not been rebuilt. Mar Shlemon Warduni, Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar of Baghdad, said his church was attacked in July last year. “Thanks be to God, they waited until people had left the church after Mass. We were in the courtyard outside when the car-bomb exploded.”