Iraq’s Christians torn between staying or facing death at home

by Aidan Clay
October 31 marks the anniversary of last year’s four-hour siege on a Syriac Catholic church in that ended with al-Qaida linked militants massacring 58 worshippers.

The attack was the worst against Iraqi Christians since the US-led invasion in 2003 and enticed many of the already dwindling Christian population in Baghdad to leave the city permanently.

“We’ve had enough now. Leaving Iraq has become a must,” Jamal Habo Korges, a Christian mechanic and father of three, told the United Nation’s humanitarian news outlet IRIN. “We’ve been suffering since 2003 and we can’t take it anymore. The latest carnage is the final warning.”

Father Douglas al-Bazi, who was kidnapped and tortured four years earlier, told The Christian Science Monitor after the attack that his Chaldean parish in Baghdad had dwindled from 2,500 families in the 1990s to less than 300.

“Of course I cannot ask anyone to stay,” he said. “Everyone tells me ‘Father, I am sorry – I will leave.’ I tell them, ‘Don’t be sorry, okay? No one is pushing you to die, what’s the benefit of dying?'”

Iraq’s Christian population prior to 2003 was estimated at one million or more. Today, fewer than 350,000 remain. Those who leave either become internally displaced – most going to the less violent Kurdish north – or flee the country altogether.

Of the two million Iraqi refugees worldwide, nearly half reside in neighboring Syria. Twenty-five per cent of them are Christian according to local church leaders – a stark comparison to the four percent that made up Iraq’s Christian population before the war.

Upon arrival in Syria, many Iraqi Christian immigrants have nothing more than the shirt on their backs.