Kurdish politician calls attention to declining Christian population in Iraq

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Jardine Malado
(Reuters/Stringer)An Iraqi Christian woman fleeing the violence in Mosul sits inside the Sacred Heart of Jesus Chaldean Church in Telkaif near Mosul, in the province of Nineveh, July 20, 2014.

A member of the Kurdistan parliament has expressed alarm over the sharp reduction in the number of Christians that remain in Iraq.

Wahida Yaqo, a Christian member of the Kurdistan Region’s Parliament, has reportedly prepared a message to the Pope warning him about the decline of the Christian population in the country.

In an interview with Rudaw on Saturday, Yaqo noted that there are only 100,000 Christians left in Iraq. The last census in Iraq, conducted in 1987, had indicated that there were 1.5 million Christians living in the country. The major Christian communities in Iraq were historically known to have lived in Baghdad, Mosul, the Nineveh Plains and the Kurdistan Region.

Yaqo noted that many churches have been shut down across the country, with 60 churches being blown up and 12 being closed due to the mass emigration of Iraqi Christians since 2013. Additionally, Rudaw reported that most of the 74 churches in Baghdad had been shut down.

“Baghdad was an important and historical city for the Christians. But ISIS and Hashd al-Shaabi emerged, the situation of the Christians deteriorated… There is only one church in Baghdad the Christians are using to pray,” Yaqo said.

At least 810,000 Iraqis sought refuge in the Kurdistan region during the sectarian conflict that came after the U.S.-led invasion from 2003 to 2010. At least 25 percent (202,500) of the displaced Iraqis were Christians, according to Hoshang Mohammed, the director general of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Joint Crisis Coordination Center.

Mohammed noted that a majority of the internally displaced persons returned to their homes after the re-establishment of “relative security,” while about 22,000 Christians remained in the Kurdistan Region.

However, a wave of Christian displacement took place again after Islamic State militants moved into Iraq in 2014.

As many as 150,500 Christians registered with the KRG, seeking shelter in the region, where they stayed in camps or with the host community.

The pan-Christian non-governmental organization Shlomoo, which documented the 2014 displacement, noted that about 400,000 Christians lived in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region before the ISIS invasion. During the battle with ISIS, about 200,000 went to the Kurdistan Region, while about the same number decided to flee the country.

Vian Markaus, the office manager for the Independent Commission of Human Rights in the Kurdistan parliament noted that many Christians who sought refuge in Kurdistan have returned to their homes in the Nineveh Plains after ISIS was driven out of the region, but “most have emigrated.”

The Iraqi Government declared a victory over ISIS in early December, but stability in the Nineveh Plains has not fully returned due to clashes between Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces.

On Sunday, the KRG congratulated Christians celebrating Christmas in the region, and expressed hope that they would be able to return to their homes safely.

“As Christmas returns, unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of our Christian brothers and sisters alongside other religious and ethnic components are displaced from their areas,” a statement from the KRG said, according to Kurdistan24.

The KRG, however, warned that despite the defeat of ISIS, Christians have not yet been guaranteed a safe return to the liberated areas, especially after the clashes between the Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga.

“Christians are a historical component of Kurdistan’s diverse and wealthy community. Thousands of years ago, Christians, alongside other ethnicities and religious components, helped establish and defend Kurdistan and are now living in coexistence, peace, and stability,” the statement added.