A Christian Exodus from Iraq

By Healy, Jack | International Herald Tribune, March 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

A Christian Exodus from Iraq


Healy, Jack, International Herald Tribune


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 abroad.

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 to Arizona.

"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 work."

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 assassination campaigns.

"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 leaders.

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. …

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