Austen IvereighOctober 18, 2010

[ROME] Of all the beleagured 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. 

It is not just Christians who have been targeted; this is not, the synod participants stressed, a "Muslim versus Christian" phenomenon. Rather, because of their perceived foreign connections, Christians have been an obvious target. And because the Christian community is small, almost every Iraqi family knows someone who has been kidnapped and killed.

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."

Although the situation has calmed in the past two years, Christians continue to be targeted and the overall picture "is not much improved", according to Fr Maroki, adding: "Where Shiites and Sunnis are attacking each other, Christians are stuck in the crossfire". 

Asked if there was a calculated effort to drive Christians out of Iraq, Bishop Warduni said it was easy to believe so because "in 200 years we have not seen such an emigration. Because there is no peace, there is no security." Although he said he could not say if things were overall worse for Iraqis since the US invasion, emigration as result of violence was one "terrible" consequence of it.

"We are in a very difficult situation," he told us. "We ask of you to do your best to spread the word of peace. Our Iraqi people need peace and security. And we want the leaders of the world to look after the interests of the Iraqi people, not their own interests. We want to say to the leaders of the world: “Take our wealth if you must, but please, leave us in peace”.

Ms Anan J. Lewis, professor of English at the University of Baghdad and a consecrated virgin in the Latin Church, said what Iraqi Christians needed above all was the support of the Church worldwide. "Those Christians in Iraq are doing their best to be good citizens, they are against nobody and they appreciate those who appreciate them."

"We are going through an ordeal and we need Christians across the world to be in solidarity with us," added Fr Mousalli.

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