One week after attacks on five Christian churches in Iraq left 12 people dead and scores injured, sources say that an exodus of Christians from Iraq to countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Australia can be expected. Meanwhile other sources have already reported a shifting of believers from the war-torn country to neighboring countries, and even overseas.
Although last week’s attacks were the most significant on the community since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime 15 months ago, the tumult in Iraq even before the church bombings has been pressing in on the Christian community, a small minority representing 3 percent of Iraq’s population. That, sources say, along with the fall of the Saddam Hussein government last year, the weakening of the generally secular atmosphere, the growing Islamization and the spread of lawlessness has prompted hundreds to flee.
Amid rising support for Islamic extremism, there has been a wave of attacks against alcohol vendors, beauty salons and shops selling Western music and videos—all of which are considered corrupting influences by religious fundamentalists. Generally, Christians often times operate such businesses.
Christians have also become frequent victims of kidnappings for ransom by criminals because a general preconception in Iraq is that the Christian community is wealthy. However, although historically many Christians in Iraq have been shopkeepers or business owners, not all Christians are wealthy, and some of those who have been abducted have not been able to raise the enormous ransom demanded by their kidnappers.
Also, because of their religion, and the fact that many Iraqi Christians speak English or have relatives abroad, there is also preconception that Christians are pro-American and that they are supporters of the US occupation of Iraq. This preconception has proved costly to the Iraqi Christian community.
Some of the Christians who have been reportedly murdered over the past few months are believed to have been working with the occupation force, providing intelligence or simply providing services as launderers, interpreters, supplying groceries and so on. Before the church bombings, at least 60 Christians were killed in the wake of the U.S. occupation.
As a result, Christians have been fleeing. Some have moved north to wait out the instability in the relatively peaceful and secular Kurdish region of Iraq. Some have moved to neighboring countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Others are trying to go to Europe, the United States or Australia, where many have relatives.
In Syria, the preferred destination for many Iraqi Christian, Christians represent about 20 percent of the refugees arriving from Iraq since the beginning of the year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Ajmal Khybari, an official at the refugee agency's Damascus office, reported that about 4,000 Iraqi families had registered as refugees in Syria.
Rita Zekert, the coordinator of the Caritas Migrant Center, a Catholic charity in Damascus that provides food, medicine and other aid to new refugees, said last year's wartime influx of Iraqi refugees included Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Kurds in percentages roughly proportionate to their numbers in Iraq. "But nowadays, 95 percent of the people coming to us are Iraqi Christians," Zekert said.
Though Iraqi Christians are heading to Jordan and Lebanon as well, Khybari said, Syria is the preferred destination because of its low cost of living, cultural similarities with Iraq and policy of freely issuing visas to citizens of other Arab countries. "For people of a very depleted economic status, Syria is an easier choice," he said.
“We’ve seen an increasing number of Christian refugees approaching our office in the past two to three months," Khybari said. In Iraq, “they feel vulnerable," he added.
The Iraqi Christian community, concentrated around Baghdad and in the northern cities of Kirkuk, Mosul and Irbil, is one of the oldest in the world. The 800,000-strong Christian community constitutes 3% of Iraq's population. Most Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean denomination. Other denominations include the Assyrians, who constitute a sizable section, Catholic and Orthodox Syriacs, as well as Catholic and Orthodox Armenians.
But despite a history of Christian faith in Iraq that dates back to the time of the apostles and a tradition of integration with their Islamic neighbors, sources say many Christians have decided to leave in recent months, and more may do so now.