Baghdad (AP) – Iraq has lost more than half the Christians who once called it home, mostly since the war began, and few who fled have plans to return, The Associated Press has learned.
Pope Benedict XVI called attention to their plight during a Mideast visit this week, urging the international community to ensure the survival of "the ancient Christian community of that noble land."
The number of Arab Christians has plummeted across the Mideast in recent years as increasing numbers seek to move to the West, saying they feel increasingly unwelcome in the Middle East and want a better life abroad.
But the exodus has been particularly stark in Iraq – where sectarian violence since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion has often targeted Christians.
The AP found that hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled.
The situation holds practical implications for Iraq's future. Christians historically made up a large portion of the country's middle class, including key jobs as doctors, engineers, intellectuals and civil servants.
The last official Iraqi census in 1987 found 1.4 million Christians in the country. Now, according to the 2008 U.S. State Department report on International Religious Freedom, that number has dropped to between 550,000 and 800,000.
Some estimate the number is even lower: only 400,000, according to the German Catholic relief organization Kirche in Not. The number is echoed privately by many Iraqi Christians.
The vast majority of the exodus has happened since the 2003 invasion, the State Department and other statistics suggest. The State Department says as many as 1.2 million Christians remained into 2003.
Christians first began leaving Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, during the economic sanctions and repression under Saddam Hussein, who pushed more Islamist policies. But the trickle turned to a flood after Saddam was toppled in 2003 and the violence escalated, said a prominent Iraqi Christian lawmaker, Younadem Kana.
"I hope to leave for any other place in the world," said Sheeran Surkon, a 27-year-old Iraqi woman who fled to Syria in 2004 after she received death threats, her father disappeared and her beauty salon was blown up. She now awaits resettlement to another country, saying she can't tolerate the violence and new Muslim conservatism in Iraq.
"How can I live there as a woman?" she asked.
Daoud Daoud, 70, a former civil servant in the northern city of Mosul, now spends his time waiting with dozens of others at a Damascus resettlement center, hoping to follow his children to Sweden.
"Iraq as we once knew it is over. For us there is no future there," he said.
More than 2 million refugees of all religions have fled Iraq since the 2003 invasion. The recent ebb in violence has lured some Muslim refugees to return in small numbers.
But few Christians contemplate going back, according to the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees.
"They simply do not feel safe enough. They cannot sufficiently count on state security or any other force to protect them," said the UNHCR's acting representative in Damascus, Philippe Leclerc.
In a report last year, the head of the UNHCR Iraq support unit noted that Christians are more likely than other fleeing Iraqis to register as refugees in an effort to emigrate to a third country.
"The vast majority of Iraqis still want to return to Iraq when the conditions permit – the notable exception being religious minorities, particularly Christians," the report said.
Signs of the exodus are stark inside the cavernous St. Joseph's church in the middle-class Baghdad neighborhood of Karradah. On a recent day, just 100 Christians, mostly women and children, celebrated Mass in an echoing space that could easily hold 1,000.
Incense filled the air as the parishioners sang hymns in Arabic and ancient Syriac – similar to the Aramaic once spoken by Jesus.
"When I came here to my parish in Karrada, we had 2,000 families," said Monsignor Luis al-Shabi, 70, who started at St. Joseph's 40 years ago. "But now we only have 1,000 – half."
The situation is worse in the Baghdad neighborhood of Dora to the south – where 30,000 prewar Christians fled during the six years of war. The now-quiet neighborhood has only a single church and a handful of Christians.
More troubling, when a group of Christian families recently tried to return to homes in Dora, two Christian women were killed, Iraq's Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly said in an interview after meeting with the pope in nearby Jordan.
Some Christians cite the violence as their reason to flee. Iraqis of all religions and ethnicities have been killed, but Christians had the misfortune to live in some of the worst battlefields, including Dora and the northern city of Mosul, both al-Qaida strongholds.
Execution-style killings late last year targeted Christians in Mosul, as did a string of bombings. In March of last year, the body of Mosul's Chaldean Archbishop was found in a shallow grave a month after he was kidnapped at gunpoint as he left a Mass.
For now, attacks against Christians in Mosul seem to have ebbed. But one priest, who refused to give his name out of fear, told the AP that "despite the current calm in the city, Christians are still afraid of persecution."
Scattered violence continues. On Sunday in a village outside Mosul, the body of a 5-year-old Christian child kidnapped a week earlier was found by police, partially chewed by dogs.
The loss of the small power the community had under Saddam has also played a role in the Christian exodus.
Barred from the army, security services or high-level political positions under Saddam, Christians in Iraq often became doctors, engineers, land owners, and above all civil servants, filling the ministries as technocrats who kept the country running.
But ministries are now controlled by powerful figures in the Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities who prefer to distribute jobs to family and close associates, according to several recent Iraqi government anti-corruption probes.
"It's not a policy of the government of discrimination, but of monopolizing and abusing power for their own pocket and for their own sect," said Christian lawmaker Kana.
Kana and others also say many Christians leave because they think the U.N. refugee agency will fast-track them for resettlement – something the U.N. denies.
"Those most vulnerable are the priority, and among them are Iraq's Christians ... but being a Christian does not mean they will be fast-tracked," said Leclerc, the U.N. official. He added, however, that countries like Germany have said they would like to take more Christians for resettlement because they are particularly targeted.
Kana is highly critical of that policy.
"Maybe they are trying to save some people, but they are destroying the community here – a historic and native people of this country," he said.
Such arguments make little difference to refugees like George Khoshaba Zorbal, a member of a prominent Christian family in Baghdad who once edited the church's magazine. He now lives on handouts in a crowded Damascus apartment with eight other family members.
"I will never go back. I'm afraid the situation there would not improve even after 10 years," he said.
(Associated Press writers Zeina Karam and Albert Aji in Damascus, Sameer Yacoub in Baghdad, and an AP employee in Mosul contributed to this report.)
Iraq has reportedly lost more than half the Christians who once called it home, mostly since the war began, and few who fled have plans to return.~~