Persecuted for the Word: Christians in Iraq Flee Targeted Violence

Copyright 2010 Jessica Keralis

In Iraq, the media focuses primarily on sectarian violence between the two major sects of Islam, the Sunni and the Shi’a. The country’s political life (and strife) is defined by relations between the Sunni and Shiite political parties. With Muslims comprising 97% of the population, it is easy to overlook the country’s tiny Christian minority. Unfortunately, it is precisely this disregard that makes them an easy target for extremists – which is why they are fleeing in droves.

Iraqi Christians have been leaving in a steady exodus after the October 31 attack on the Our Lady of Salvation cathedral in Bagdad. A group of Sunni insurgents stormed the cathedral during Mass, taking the church’s construction and cleaning crew and 100 worshippers hostage. After a four-hour stand-off with Iraqi defense forces, 58 victims were killed, including two priests. It was the second time the cathedral had been targeted.

No single population has been spared by the violence in post-war Iraq: thousands of Sunni and Shiite Arabs have been killed alongside Christians and Kurds. However, minority groups, including Christians, have been explicitly targeted by insurgents and have been driven out in disproportionate numbers: despite making up only 3% of the country’s pre-invasion population, they comprise 40% of the country’s refugees. More than half of them have already left Iraq, despite pleas from Christian leaders to stay. Compounding the problem is the government’s inability to protect them – or perhaps its apathy. While Christians and other minority groups are protected on paper, the legal protections in the constitution have done little to stop violence or discrimination against them. Christians have a grand total of 5 seats (and almost no political influence) in the new 325-seat parliament. And with the political stand-off that has left the country with no effective government for most of 2010, they have simply slipped through the cracks. Even worse is the fact that Iraqi refugees continue to be forcibly repatriated, despite the obvious danger and repeated insistence by UNHCR that they not be made to return to the most dangerous parts of the country.

The Kurdish Regional Government has offered safe haven to Christian refugees, providing assistance with housing and jobs. Those that can afford it have fled to this semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq; some have moved in with relatives. Still others hide in monasteries and churches. After each wave of attacks, fewer and fewer return to their homes and jobs. “I expect that a month from now not a single Christian will be left in Mosul,” said Nelson P. Khoshaba, an engineer who works for the city.

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