The Disappearing Assyrians of Iraq

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By Sonia Farid

The liberation of Mosul was heralded as a new era for Iraqi Christians who could go back to their homes following the defeat of ISIS.

However, this much-publicized triumph overshadowed a significant defeat that seems to shed a more realistic light on the fate of Christians in Iraq.

The capital, Baghdad, was, meanwhile, witnessing the permanent closure of eight churches. After a delegation from the Catholic Church regional authority visited those churches and following investigations that showed that attendance, if any, kept dropping in the past seven years, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate announced that the churches will be closed for good. While such decision seemed to have made a lot of sense, it leaves little space for optimism as far Iraq’s Christian community is involved.

Journalist Elsy Melkonian argues that Baghdad is different from Mosul, where the latter was occupied by ISIS, hence placing Christians under a direct threat that forced them to leave. For Melkonian, the remarkable decline in the number of Christians in Baghdad can be attributed to other reasons.

“It is not related to ISIS, but to the fact that Christians have generally become targeted by different militias since 2003,” Melkonian wrote. “They always kidnap Christians and ask for ransom and at times they would just kill the kidnapped person right away.”

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This led many to flee Baghdad whether to other parts of Iraq or to other countries, she added. Melkonian said that violence against Christians continues till the present time and was especially demonstrated in the case of an old Christian woman who lives alone in Baghdad. In the first week of August, this woman was brutally beaten by a group of armed men and robbed. “This was a message for Iraqi Christians who fled to Kurdistan or Lebanon or other neighboring areas never to come back,” Melkonian quoted William Warda, coordinator Alliance of Iraqi Minorities Network, as saying.

Warda added that Iraqi Christians who still live in Baghdad are under a lot of economic and social pressure. “For example, shop owners have to regularly pay money to armed groups in return for protection,” he said. “Christian girls are also not capable of walking alone in several neighborhoods in Baghdad.” The state, meanwhile, is incapable of securing the capital and protecting its minorities.

Kaldo Oghanna, member of the central committee of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, said that the decline in the number of Christians in Baghdad has been taking place since 2003, before which they constituted 20 percent of the capital’s population.

“Even though Baghdad has always been better than other parts of Iraq security-wise between 2003 and 2010, Christians remained the weak link that was targeted by different extremist groups,” he said. “The real turning point was the Our Lady of Salvation Church massacre in October 2010.”

According to Oghanna, this massacre drove a large number of Iraqi Christians to flee to Kurdistan or to the Nineveh Plain, having to flee the latter in 2014 when it was invaded by ISIS, while others made it to Western countries. “Christians realized that Baghdad is no longer a suitable place for them and that one group or another is always sending them a message to stay away.”

Journalist Sandra Elliot said that after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the main conflict in Baghdad was between Sunni and Shiite groups. Then, starting 2005, Sunni extremist groups started targeting Christians in different neighborhoods across the capital.

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“It was commonplace for Christians to receive envelopes containing bullets and a threat from nearby extremists,” she wrote. “Messages promising bloodshed and death drove thousands of Christians from their homes in these neighborhoods.” Elliot explains that Christians were an easy target because most of them were unarmed and “with no help from a crumbling government, they had no choice but to flee their homes.”

Journalist Fadi Kamal Yusuf argued that the decision of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate came too late that it negatively affected the cause. “Churches have been empty of worshippers for years and the church should’ve taken such a step as soon as it noticed the decline in the number of Christians in the capital because then it would have alerted everyone to the problem,” he wrote.

“Now it is pointless and the issue is just a news story that no one paid attention to and the church can no longer ask people to stay.” For Yusuf, taking this step now will most likely lead to the migration of more Christians from the capital because they would feel they there is very few of them left already, but in the past they could have united to overcome the threats facing them and to keep the churches open.

“And very soon we will be hearing of more churches in Baghdad closing their doors especially that many of the ones that are still open are located in neighborhoods where Christian presence is remarkably dwindling.” Yusuf added that lack of religious will is also coupled with lack of political will to protect the remaining Christians in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. “Both religious and political authorities need to make use of the liberation of the Nineveh Plain, which received both regional and international attention, in order to give Iraqi Christians hope in going back to their homes. Otherwise, more churches will close and Christians will disappear from Iraq.”

(This analysis was originally published in the Assyrian International News Agency website [aina.org] on September 6, https://english.alarabiya.net)