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Iraq is one of the countries generally referred to as the cradle of Christendom. Since 2003, the number of Iraqi Christians has, however, fallen dramatically. Whether Christianity has any sort of future in Iraq is currently impossible to divine.

A damaged statue of the Virgin Mary.© Goran Tomasevic, Reuters

The number of believers in Protestant and evangelical (free) churches comes to approximately 5,000. If we assume a figure of around 250,000 Christians remaining in Iraq, we can extrapolate the breakdown as approximately 125,000 (equals 50 per cent) or 166,650 (equals two thirds) to 200,000 (equals 80 per cent) Chaldean Catholic Christians; approximately 100,000 Syriac Catholic or Syriac Orthodox members; and approximately 25,000 Assyrian Christians (equals ten per cent). If we assume a figure of only around 200,000 Christians in Iraq, this would mean approximately 100,000 (equals 50 per cent) or 133,333 (equals two thirds) to 160,000 (equals 80 per cent) are Chaldean Christians; approximately 80,000 are Syriac Catholic or Syriac Orthodox members; and approximately 20,000 are Assyrian Christians (equals ten per cent). Today, the overwhelming majority of Christians in Iraq live in northern Iraq, primarily in the KRI. A maximum of 25,000 Christians are thought to still be living in Baghdad – figures from the Chaldean Patriarch Louis Sako, according to whom up to 150,000 Christians are supposedly still living in Baghdad, have no basis in fact.

Christian Churches in Iraq
Up to 80 per cent of Christians in Iraq – other sources claim two thirds, or maybe even only 50 per cent – are said to belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, approximately one fifth to the autocephalous Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East and possibly just ten per cent to the two Assyrian churches. Other churches in Iraq are the Syriac Catholic and the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox and the Armenian Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox and the Greek Melkite Catholic Church. If we start from the premise that around 50 per cent of all Christians in Iraq belong to the Chaldean Church and around ten per cent are members of the Assyrian churches, then the remaining 40 per cent are attributable to the Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic Church.

Christians in the Multi-Ethnic State of Iraq – a Diminishing Minority

It is unclear what proportion of Christians made up the Iraqi population in the past. One source quotes a total of 1.4 million Christians in 1980 (equal to 10.25 per cent of the total population); another specifies a figure constituting seven per cent of the population. According to Sarkis Aghajan Mamendo, the number of Christians in Iraq had already fallen to 800,000 (3.1 per cent of the total population) before the invasion in April 2003, with numbers continuing to fall in the years that followed. It would therefore be surprising if there had been 800,000 (2.96 per cent) or 700,000 (2.59 per cent) Christians still living in Iraq in 2006. It might in fact have been 500,000 (1.85 per cent), of whom half would have been based in Baghdad. The proportion of Christians in the population continued to fall dramatically even after 2006. Data to the contrary are not credible. Nevertheless, in 2011 a report alleged that the Christian population in the still stood at three per cent (956,032 of 31,867,758 inhabitants). In its report in 2012 on religious freedom in Iraq, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) refers to Christian leaders in Iraq in speaking of 400,000 to 850,000 Christians (1.21 per cent or 2.57 per cent). Compared with this, according to a statement by the Chairman of the Chaldean Democratic Union Party, Ablahad Afraim, fewer than 400,000 (1.17 per cent) of Christians were still living in Iraq in 2013, and USCIRF reports, referring to some Christian leaders, that the proportion of Christians remaining supposedly stands between only 300,000 and 250,000 (0.79 per cent or 0.55 per cent). By contrast, at the end of 2015, Iraqi bishops did not want to rule out the number of Christians still remaining in Iraq standing at only approximately 200,000, if not even fewer. These figures were confirmed at the end of 2016 by Iraqi bishops, whereby it also became clear that a further – possibly even an accelerated – exodus of Christians was likely to occur, as long as the conditions they had stipulated for returning to their former places of residence remained unmet.

Causes: the Consequences of the Invasion in 2003

The Iraqi constitution of 1970 did not stipulate religious freedom in the sense of Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Prior to 2003, however, under the dictator Saddam Hussein, there was considerable room for manoeuvre for the non-Muslim minorities in some instances, albeit this was limited strictly to the practice of religion. The sharp decline in this section of the population since the invasion of 2003 is due in no small part to the general developments in Iraq after 2003.

Terror of Radical Islamist Groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Years from 2003 to 2010

Between 1970 and 1990 there was significant migration from northern Iraq to conurbations such as Basra, Baghdad, Kirkuk and Mosul as a result of developments in the oil industry. Violent attacks by al-Qaeda and associated groups between 2003 and 2009 triggered a return migration to northern Iraq. Many returning Christians have already permanently left Iraq in large numbers, due to the lack of prospects in their ancestral settlement areas on the Nineveh Plains and in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians were vilified and persecuted as being “collaborators” with the invaders.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq threatened to descend into civil war, in which radical Islamist groups associated with al-Qaeda not only took action against the western invaders, but also against the native Christians, whom they accused of collaborating with the West. In point of fact, many Christians were willingly commissioned by the invading forces due to their high level of education and good language skills. As “collaborators with the Christian invaders” they therefore inevitably became targets of the radical Islamist groups alluded to. In this situation, not least out of self-defence, a section of Iraq’s Muslim population began to harass and persecute not just Christians but also those of other religious minorities, and to appropriate their possessions. The consequence was a huge refugee movement from Iraq that included Christians, although the leaders of the Christian churches in Iraq – first and foremost the former Patriarch of the Chaldean Church, Emmanuel III. Cardinal Delly – took a stand against it and initially did not even want to accept their believers’ right to freely decide to leave the country. The focus was on the concern for the continued existence of the indigenous Christian churches present in Iraq, such as the Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Orthodox Church, which would find no, or at least no adequate organisational structures in the secularised host countries of Europe. There were concerns that the Iraqi Christians might join other churches there, or follow the example of the secularised populations in these countries and turn away from the churches completely. Some Iraqi church leaders are, meanwhile, cautiously optimistic now that in Germany, for example, suitable church structures are being developed. The Syriac Orthodox Christians can find a new spiritual home in the numerous Syriac Orthodox communities, which were set up as early as the 1980s by refugees from Turkey. Since then, some Chaldean communities have also sprung up, e. g. in Essen, Stuttgartand Munich.

Expulsion in 2014 by the Terrorist Militia Islamic State

The expulsion of Christians from their ancestral settlement areas on the Nineveh Plains and in Mosul as part of the campaigns of conquest by the group known as Islamic State (IS) in summer 2014, accelerated the exodus of Christians from Iraq. The Nineveh Plains form part of those areas that have been disputed for centuries by the Iraqi central government and the government of the KRI. The Nineveh Plains have, nonetheless, been controlled for a long time by the Kurdish Peshmerga. However, they withdrew as IS advanced in the summer of 2014, which was seen as a betrayal by Christians. The Christians, though, unlike the Yazidis, were fortunate in that they had time to travel to the KRI in safety, where they also found acceptance.

The campaigns of conquest by IS accelerated the exodus of Christians from Iraq.

According to data from the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Matti Warda, around 100,000 Christian refugees from Iraq are currently living as refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. In mid-2016, around 18,500 in total were living in Jordan, while in Lebanon the figure was approximately 4,200 families (equalling up to 42,000 people). At the end of 2015 there were approx. 48,000 Christian refugees from Iraq (over 90 per cent) and Syria (under ten per cent) registered with UNHCR and KADER in Turkey; at the end of 2016 this came to around 50,000. We can therefore assume that, in both 2015 and 2016, an equally large number of Christian refugees, though probably far more, passed Turkey without registering there. In recent years, their stay has lasted up to several years, with strongly fluctuating numbers due to illegal onward movement, or as a consequence of relocation programmes implemented by the UNHCR and IOM to Australia, Canada and the USA and, most recently, to New Zealand as well.


Change in the Denominational Power Structure in Baghdad after 2003

After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the denominational basis of the power structure in Baghdad was reversed. Where the regime of Saddam Hussein – himself a Sunni – had had to buttress itself with the support of the smaller of the two large ethno-religious groups within the population (the Sunni Muslims making up an estimated 17 per cent of the population) the present-day government is based on the majoritarian Shiite population, with a proportion of 58 to 63 per cent. While Saddam Hussein forged alliances with Christians to secure his power, integrating them into his machinery of power (though without giving the Christians any real political influence), the Shiite-dominated governments do not require the assistance of the Christians and other non-Muslim minority groups. Nevertheless, the leaders of the so-called Christian parties in Iraq seem to still be in denial that the basic parameters have changed. The Christians hold five seats in the Iraqi parliament (328 seats), but are by no means a cohesive group. In the elections to Iraq’s parliament on 30 April 2014, seven Christian parties were included on five lists and there were also two independent Christian candidates. In light of the above, the Christian representatives in Parliament have no influence of any sort and are therefore not taken seriously by the Iraqi church leaders either.

Christians in Iraq today, who lack any political clout, can therefore no longer count on the protection and consideration that they received under Saddam Hussein.

The Relationship between the Christians and the Arabs or Kurds

The relationship between Christians and Kurds is ambivalent. This does not belie the fact that church leaders living in the KRI regularly sing the praise of the region’s government in public – this is the nature of the business. Conversely, the government of the KRI, which is dominated by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and led by Masud Barzani, has regularly presented itself as the protector both of Christians in the KRI and those living for instance on the Nineveh Plains. The former Christian Finance Minister (2006 to 2009) of the KRI, Sarkis Aghajan Mamendo, supported this position by apportioning considerable funds from the USA and the Netherlands for the benefit of the Christian churches. It is likely that both sides profited from this: the KRI government, since it was able to present itself to the West as protector of the Christians; and the Christian churches, who benefited from the financial donations.

Despite all the negative experiences with the Kurds, when questioned, the Christians in the KRI and on the Nineveh Plains always emphasised that they preferred to live under the control of the Kurdish government than under that of the Arabs or the Iraqi central government. The fact that the government of the KRI, which is dominated by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan led by Masud Barzani, was seen as a secular government doubtless also plays a part, while the Iraqi central government is seen as a government dominated by Shiites and Shiite Islam; and one which many Christians allege has committed to the Islamisation of Iraq. This is also attributed to the subordinate government representatives in northern Iraq – such as the Governor of Mosul and the representatives of the governorate of Nineveh (Mosul), who are all Sunni Muslims. The Christian stance must also be understood in this context: “If Masud Barzani is no longer President of the KRI and the Barzanis in the KRI have nothing more to say, I’ll be leaving the country within 24 hours.” Whether the resignation of Masud Barzani from his position of President of the KRI will speed up the exodus of Christians, is not yet possible to determine.

The Christians would favour a Kurdish government over the Iraqi central government.

Notwithstanding this, Christians in Iraq have always lived side by side with Shiite and Sunni Arabs or Sunni Kurds and members of other, smaller ethno-religious groups in the same place or region. This is also the case on the Nineveh Plains. Nevertheless, Christians often report on the living conditions in these areas as if only Christians lived there. However, the Nineveh Plains, too, have always been an area settled by Muslims and members of other ethno-religious groups, e. g. the Shabak people. Thus, even prior to the conquest of the Christian settlements on the Nineveh Plains by IS militias in summer 2014, it is thought that only 22 to 23 per cent – others believe around 40 per cent – of the population was Christian. In terms of the future, it is estimated that Christians will make up a maximum proportion of ten per cent at best.

Destruction and Reconstruction of Christian Settlement Areas on the Nineveh Plains

Christians’ hopes of a possible return were raised following the reconquest or liberation of the Christian settlement areas of Bartella, Qaraqosh and Karemlash at the end of October 2016. These hopes were short-lived, however, after church members investigating the situation in Qaraqosh and Bartella reported that between 75 and 85 per cent of the buildings in both places had been so severely damaged by the impact of the fighting and air strikes, that they would probably need to be torn down. Many buildings that appeared largely intact from the outside, were burnt out and it was doubtful whether the shell of the building could be retained. In the opinion of the Syriac Catholic Bishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Mouche, the pillaging was a clear message to Christians not to come back. In any case, the reconstruction would take at least three to four years, swallow an enormous amount of money and could not be achieved by the local Christian population without foreign aid. Christian diaspora groups, particularly in the USA but also church aid agencies such as Kirche in Not (Church in Need), have not let the questionable political prospects in the region discourage from contributing to the reconstruction of the ruined Christian settlement areas on the Nineveh Plains.

In point of fact, some Christians have already returned. However, the parameters have changed so much following the referendum of 25 September 2017 that many are now fundamentally rethinking their intention to return.

Smouldering and Potential Conflicts

Even before the reconquest of Mosul in 2016/17, numerous conflicts in northern Iraq flared up, which could now break out at any time. The first conflict, which had been smouldering for a long time between Baghdad and Erbil over disputed territory – including the Nineveh Plains, also populated by Christians – which predominantly concerned Iraqi Kurds’ desire for independence, became extremely acute immediately after the referendum of 25 September 2017. The most affected are those Christians who want(ed) to return to their ancestral settlement areas on the Nineveh Plains east of Mosul. However, Christians are also at risk of being affected by potential conflicts that could arise out of the interests of Iran (land bridge between Iran and northern Syria) and Turkey (PKK, Mosul, Sunnis) in northern Iraq.

Returning to the Nineveh Plains – a Question of Safety

The Nineveh Plains are an area of Iraq that lies outside Kurdistan and which is disputed territory between the central government and the Kurdish regional government. A prerequisite for Christians to return to this area is for their safety there to be guaranteed. The central government is by rights responsible, but has shown no presence there as yet, in contrast to the Kurdish Peshmerga. However, after the referendum of 25 September 2017, the Peshmerga were forced to withdraw by the Iraqi army and the Shiite militias allied with it. Whether the central government will now ensure order and security remains to be seen. There is no legal basis for international security guarantees – often demanded by Iraqi Christians – since Iraq, which would be responsible for providing protection, is a sovereign state. The expectation that Christian and Yazidi militias could guarantee protection is equally unrealistic, since they are too small to do so, as well as being poorly equipped and having virtually no training. Furthermore, the governments in Baghdad and Erbil are hindering their deployment. Moreover, they are in part allied to the Iraqi army, in part to the Shiite-dominated people mobilisation militias or the Kurdish Peshmerga and, consequently, thoroughly fragmented.

Is there a Future for the Presence of Christians in Northern Iraq?

It is virtually impossible to give an unequivocal answer. The prospects have certainly not improved following the referendum of 25 Sep-tember 2017. In a joint statement dated 1 October 2017, the leaders of the Christian churches in the region of Kurdistan gave their view on the precarious situation following the referendum. With regard to the current problems they are advocating dialogue between the Iraqi central government and the government of the KRI. At the same time, they accuse both governments of failing to defend Christians’ interests and to protect their rights, which they claim has led to the migration of many Christians. The bishops lament the fact that there are no indications of Christianity having a future in Iraq, where it has existed since the 1st century. They say that the situation has become very serious for Christians and that the parishes are no longer in a position to oppose the emigration of those who have remained thus far. Should the present disputes continue, Christians would increasingly decide to emigrate, which, they say, would lead to there ultimately being no Christians in Iraq anymore.

Therefore, it cannot be ruled out that we will see the end of a Christian presence in Iraq in the near future.

Dr. Otmar Oehring is Coordinator for International Religious Dialogue in the Team Political Dialogue and Analysis at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.

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