BAGHDAD – Iraqi Christians are under renewed threat as they prepare to celebrate Christmas and thousands of the declining community have fled since a deadly church attack in October.
Christians have been worse off since the 2003 US-led invasion which triggered an insurgency in which Al-Qaeda has played the major role in fighting both US troops and the country’s now dominant Shiites.
In October, 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel were killed in an attack on a Baghdad cathedral that triggered global condemnation and renewed expressions of concern for the Christians.
The Iraqi affiliate of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility for the October 31 attack and made new threats against Iraqi Christians.
Ten days later a string of attacks targeted the homes of Christians in Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 33 others, in a new blow to the fragile community.
Monsignor Louis Sarko, Chaldean Catholic archbishop, told AFP on Tuesday that Christmas ceremonies across the northern oil hub of Kirkuk have been cancelled after he and 10 other community figures received threats from ISI.
Kirkuk’s Christians “will not celebrate the feast of Christmas this year, except for masses,” he said.
The number of Christians left in war-ravaged Iraq is estimated at between 450,000 and 500,000, including around 300,000 Catholics (down from 387,000 in 1980).
Between 800,000 and 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq in 2003.
Of Iraq’s Catholics left, around 80 percent are Chaldean and the rest are Syriac Catholics, Armenian Catholics and Roman Catholics. Of the non-Catholics, 80 percent are Assyrian and the rest Syriac Orthodox or Armenian Orthodox.
According to legend, Saint Thomas introduced Christianity to Iraq dozens of years after the death of Jesus Christ but other experts believe it rose during the second century.