After moving to relative safety in Iraq's north, Iraqi Christians
are now migrating to Turkey, Jordan, Europe and the United States.
Many experts on religion say their flight tolls the twilight of
Christianity in the country.
Iraq's dwindling Christians, driven from their homes by attacks
and intimidation, are beginning to abandon the havens they had found
in the country's north, discouraged by unemployment and a creeping
fear that the violence they had fled was catching up to them.
Their quiet exodus to Turkey, Jordan, Europe and the United
States is the latest chapter of a seemingly inexorable decline that
many religious leaders say tolls the twilight of Christianity in a
land where city skylines have long been marked by both minarets and
church steeples. Recent assessments say that the Christian
population in Iraq has now fallen by more than half since the U.S.-
led invasion in 2003, and with the military's departure, some
Christians say they lost a protector of last resort.
Their flight is felt in places like the wind-scoured village of
Tenna, which has sheltered dozens of Christian migrants over the
past nine years. The families fleeing Baghdad's death squads and
bombings found safety here beneath the hulking mountains, but little
else besides poverty, boredom and cold. Villagers estimate that half
of the 50 or so Christian homes are now empty, their families
Walid Shamoon, 42, wants to be the next to leave. He said he left
the Iraqi capital in January 2011 after a confrontation with Shiite
militia members set off a nightmare of escalating death threats and
an attempt on his life. A brother had already been killed in a
mortar attack six years earlier, so he said he quit his contract job
with the Australian Embassy, giving up a monthly salary equivalent
to $1,500, and came here.
These days, all he can think about is his application to emigrate
"This is not a life," he said one recent afternoon, as a blizzard
raced down from the mountains. "There is no improvement. There is no
Many of the people now struggling in the Kurdish north of Iraq
came in the wake of a suicide attack in Baghdad at Our Lady of
Salvation Church in October 2010. It was the single worst assault on
Iraqi Christians since the war began, one that left nearly 60
worshipers and two priests dead and that turned the church into a
charnel house of scorched pews and shattered stained glass.
Christian families in Baghdad grabbed clothing, cash and a few
other provisions and headed north for the Christian communities
along the Nineveh plain and the three provinces of Kurdistan. They
joined tens of thousands of other Christians from Baghdad, Mosul and
other cities who traced similar arcs after earlier attacks and
"They traded everything for security," said the Rev. Gabriel
Tooma, who leads the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in the Christian
town of Qosh, which took in dozens of families.
The Christians in northern Iraq make up a tiny fraction of Iraq's
legions of displaced people. In all, there are 1.3 million of them
across the country, according to the most recent estimates by the
United Nations. Many live in garbage dumps, shantytowns and squalor
far worse than anything facing the Christian families in Kurdistan.
Still, Christians and other minorities were singled out in the
years of sectarian cleansing that bifurcated a once-diverse Baghdad
into pockets of Sunnis and Shiites. Estimates by the United States
and international organizations say that the Iraqi Christian
population of 800,000 to 1.4 million before the war now stands at
less than 500,000.
"The consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in
Iraq," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote
in its most recent annual report, summarizing the concerns of church
In January, the International Organization for Migration found
that 850 of 1,350 displaced Christian families it was tracking in
northern Iraq had left in the past year. …