Written threats, kidnappings, bombings and murder by Muslim extremists are driving thousands of Iraq’s minority Christian population out of their ancestral homeland, fleeing for safety to neighboring Jordan and Syria.
After a string of church bombings in August and September, Iraqi government and church officials estimate that anywhere from 30,000 to 40,000 Christians have fled the country. And they admit that hundreds more families out of Iraq’s 750,000 Christians are leaving each week.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has disputed these figures, saying they are too high. Yet UNHCR offices in Amman and Damascus admit that it is hard to know exactly how many Iraqi Christians are currently in Jordan and Syria.
Jerry Dykstra of Open Doors said that suicide bombings in Iraq have scared believers. "Many Iraqi Christians are not going to church (and) they're not going out of their homes because of all the violence that's going on there,” Dykstra said. “So, we've just got to pray for peace to come there and that the elections will come in January and that Christians will be represented in those elections.”
According to Open Doors, the story behind the story is that Christians are more fearful than the average Iraqi. "What you don't hear is that many Christians are being specifically targeted because of their Christian faith because they're viewed as collaborators because they share the same religion," Dykstra said. And that is making it incredibly tough for Iraqi believers.
Of the 4,000 Iraqi families officially registered as refugees with the agency in Damascus, more than half are Christians, reported Compass Direct. It is believed that there are larger numbers of Iraqis in Syria because it is cheaper to live there than in Jordan. Iraqi Christians also said they have stronger cultural and spiritual ties to Syria. Syrian authorities estimate there are about 300,000 Iraqis in the country.
“The Syrian government has been extremely generous to the Iraqis,” explained Abdelhamed El Ouali, UNHCR head in Damascus, as reported by Compass Direct. “It has kept the borders open without political considerations. And it believes it has a sacred duty to allow Iraqis who need safety to stay as long as necessary. But I am afraid if the numbers continue to rise dramatically without any international assistance, the situation here could change,” he warned.
It's growing problem and workers in Iraq are concerned. According to Compass Direct the number of Christians leaving the country continues to rise and little is being done to curb the exodus.
Agencies say as long as hostilities continue in the country, the number of Christians in Iraq is expected to drop, continuing the already steady decline over the past 15 years. Some fear Iraq’s Christian population could totally disappear within a decade if emigration continues at its current rate. But others are more hopeful and say the Iraqi church is resilient and would move underground if the circumstances worsened.
Currently, most of Iraq’s Christians are Chaldean eastern-rite Catholics who are autonomous from Rome but who recognize the pope’s authority. Other Christian denominations in Iraq include Roman and Syrian Catholics; Assyrians; Greek, Syrian and Armenian Orthodox; Presbyterians; Anglicans; and evangelicals.
Before the 2003 war, Christians represented one million out of Iraq’s 25 million inhabitants, while a 1987 census recorded their number as 1.4 million.