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ICC Note:

Eight churches in Baghdad were recently closed after a series of investigations by Christian leaders determined that attendance, if any, had been decreasing over the last several years. Low church attendance is partially attributable to a slow exodus of Christians from Baghdad. Although never an ISIS stronghold, Christians in Baghdad have historically been targeted by a wide variety of different extremist groups. In particular, the Our Lady of Salvation Church massacre in 2010 drove a large number of Christians to flee Baghdad. Targeted persecution against the remaining Christian community have continued, causing many to wonder whether Baghdad is a place they should call home.

09/06/2017 Iraq (Al Arabiya) – The liberation of Mosul was heralded as a new era for Iraqi Christians who could go back to their homes following the defeat of ISIS.

However, this much-publicized triumph overshadowed a significant defeat that seems to shed a more realistic light on the fate of Christians in Iraq.

The capital Baghdad was, meanwhile, witnessing the permanent closure of eight churches. After a delegation from the Catholic Church regional authority visited those churches and following investigations that showed that attendance, if any, kept dropping in the past seven years, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate announced that the churches will be closed for good. While such decision seemed to have made a lot of sense, it leaves little space for optimism as far Iraq’s Christian community is involved.

Journalist Elsy Melkonian argues that Baghdad is different from Mosul, where the latter was occupied by ISIS, hence placing Christians under a direct threat that forced them to leave. For Melkonian, the remarkable decline in the number of Christians in Baghdad can be attributed to other reasons.

“It is not related to ISIS, but to the fact that Christians have generally become targeted by different militias since 2003,” Melkonian wrote. “They always kidnap Christians and ask for ransom and at times they would just kill the kidnapped person right away.”

This led many to flee Baghdad whether to other parts of Iraq or to other countries, she added. Melkonian said that violence against Christians continues till the present time and was especially demonstrated in the case of an old Christian woman who lives alone in Baghdad. In the first week of August, this woman was brutally beaten by a group of armed men and robbed. “This was a message for Iraqi Christians who fled to Kurdistan or Lebanon or other neighboring areas never to come back,” Melkonian quoted William Warda, coordinator Alliance of Iraqi Minorities Network, as saying.

Warda added that Iraqi Christians who still live in Baghdad are under a lot of economic and social pressure. “For example, shop owners have to regularly pay money to armed groups in return for protection,” he said. “Christian girls are also not capable of walking alone in several neighborhoods in Baghdad.” The state, meanwhile, is incapable of securing the capital and protecting its minorities.

Kaldo Oghanna, member of the central committee of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, said that the decline in the number of Christians in Baghdad has been taking place since 2003, before which they constituted 20% of the capital’s population.

“Even though Baghdad has always been better than other parts of Iraq security-wise between 2003 and 2010, Christians remained the weak link that was targeted by different extremist groups,” he said. “The real turning point was the Our Lady of Salvation Church massacre in October 2010.”

According to Oghanna, this massacre drove a large number of Iraqi Christians to flee to Kurdistan or to the Nineveh Plain, having to flee the latter in 2014 when it was invaded by ISIS, while others made it to Western countries. “Christians realized that Baghdad is no longer a suitable place for them and that one group or another is always sending them a message to stay away.”

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