Iraqi Christians: A Primer

by Amanda Ufheil-Somers
published in MER267

Media coverage in the West can overstate the degree to which Christians are “disappearing” from the Middle East. But one place where such characterizations have merit is Iraq. In the years since the 2003 invasion led by the United States, at least half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country to escape the violence of war, occupation and insurgency, as well as a campaign of intimidation, forced expulsion and sectarian cleansing carried out by militias and criminal gangs. Numerous others have been internally displaced.

Statistics on minorities in Iraq have long been rough guesses. The 1987 Iraqi census reported 1.4 million Christians, while the State Department estimated that 1 million Christians were in Iraq in 2003. Church officials now place the Christian population -- all denominations -- at 500,000. Almost two thirds of Iraqi Christians belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, while most of the remainder are Assyrian, an Orthodox rite. There are also smaller communities of Roman Catholics, Syriac Catholics, Armenians (Apostolic Christians and Catholics) and Protestants. Prior to the 2003 war most Christians lived in cities -- Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Kirkuk -- as well as in the historically Christian agricultural towns of northeastern Nineveh province, known as the Nineveh plains. Though there were Christian-majority districts in the large cities, many Christians lived in mixed neighborhoods.

Unlike many other Christian communities in the region, Assyrians widely speak neo-Aramaic at home, and most do not identify as Arab despite decades of pressure from the Baathist “Arabization” campaigns also directed at Kurds. Most Chaldeans migrated to cities in the early twentieth century; urban Chaldeans willingly adopted Arabic and the great majority have subsequently considered themselves Arab. Yet the Iraqi government now classifies Chaldeans and Assyrians as minority “nationalities,” though the constitution distributes minority representation along religious lines, with five parliamentary seats reserved for Christians of any denomination.

Attacks on Christians began in the spring of 2003 after high-profile fatwas banning alcohol sparked vandalism of liquor stores and violence against their owners, most of whom were Christian. As sectarian violence mounted, Christians were targeted by both Sunni and Shi‘i Islamist militants who accused them of colluding with -- even inviting -- the US and allied forces as part of a religious crusade. Individual threats, bombings, kidnappings, torture and murder drove a slow but steady stream of Christians out of the cities and/or out of the country. Armed groups, some of whom claimed links to al-Qaeda, used the terror campaign to extort protection money from churches and merchants (including non-Christians). With so many militias in operation, the bribes did not always guarantee protection. Kidnappings for ransom also proliferated due to the belief that Christians are wealthy or receive remittances from relatives abroad.

Sunni-Shi‘i conflict raged in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. But even as this fighting began to scale down, attacks on Christians and other minority groups increased. Christians in Mosul were targeted in the fall of 2008 after Christian leaders around the country lobbied to protect and increase minority representation in the provincial election law then under consideration in Parliament. (The law passed in September 2008 without any provisions for minority seats; many Christians interpreted this vote as an attempt to exclude and drive Christians from Iraq.) Forty Christians were killed in what Iraq’s Ministry of Human Rights called a “systematic” and “pre-arranged” campaign of terror. Nearly a quarter of Mosul’s 50,000 Christians left the city, though most returned later that year to maintain access to jobs and schools. In October 2010, armed men stormed an evening mass at Our Lady of Salvation Church in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad. The initial attack and the shootout with Iraqi security forces killed 44 parishioners and two priests. In the weeks following the attack, Christian flight to northern Iraq and to neighboring countries surged.

Reliable data on the number of Iraqi refugees is difficult to obtain. Each country has different methods for counting border crossings (per name or per entry; individuals or families) and the low rate of official registration with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees makes accurate tallies impossible. UNHCR estimates that, at the peak of migration in 2009, 2.6 million Iraqis were internally displaced, with another 2 million refugees outside the country, primarily in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Resettlement and return migration -- including Iraqis fleeing the violence in Syria -- reduced the numbers of refugees to 1.4 million and internally displaced to 1.3 million by September 2012.

Though Christians formed only 3 to 5 percent of the Iraqi population prior to 2003, they have accounted for a much higher proportion of registered refugees, up to 20 percent at various times over the last decade. Minorities have been more likely to register with UNHCR, and Christian advocacy groups in particular promoted the importance of registration for resettlement in third countries. Many refugees, however, have not sought official status out of fear of being forced to return to Iraq.

Refugees in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon have no official status without UNHCR recognition. They are barred from working legally and do not always have access to public services like health care and education. Many families live off near-depleted savings, remittances from relatives in Iraq and assistance from charities, often funded by wealthy Iraqis. For those who sold all their property before leaving, the possibility of returning to Iraq is as infeasible as it is undesirable: A UNHCR survey among refugees in Syria in 2008 found that over 89 percent did not plan to return. Most refugees would like to settle in the US, Europe or Australia.

The magnitude of the refugee crisis has yet to be adequately addressed by any party, and international interest in the plight of refugees has waned since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011. In June 2010, UNHCR touted its referral of 100,000 refugees for resettlement in third countries, only half of whom had actually been admitted at that time. The US, which since 2007 has accepted the largest number of Iraqi refugees (referred by UNHCR, by its own Refugee Admissions Program or through asylum proceedings) had approved fewer than 100,000 refugee applications -- a 53 percent acceptance rate -- and admitted fewer than 66,000 people by March 2012. The proposed resettlement target for 2013 is 12,000.

Resettlement programs and asylum policies in the US and the European Union have favored religious minorities, Palestinians, female-headed households and people with medical conditions or disabilities. (The US also prioritizes applications from those who worked for the US government, its contractors and US-based media outlets.) Germany, France and the Netherlands have specifically sought Christians for their resettlement programs. Since 2008, UNHCR has granted automatic refugee status only to religious and ethnic minorities, and then only to those coming from central and southern Iraq. Refugees from areas controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government are subject to months-long investigations to verify claims of persecution as a condition of registry with UNHCR.

Many of those who remained in Iraq, or are now returning from Syria and elsewhere, have sought refuge in the Nineveh plains and the provinces administered by the Kurdish Regional Government -- Dohuk, Erbil and Suleimaniya. By February 2011, over 1,300 displaced families were living in these provinces. In Nineveh, already one of Iraq’s poorest provinces, unemployment is high and the influx of refugees has driven up rents.

The Kurdish government has provided stipends, subsidized housing, schooling and other social services to Christian families since 2005, spearheaded by Finance Minister Sarkis Aghajan, who is Chaldean. Aghajan has also funded church construction and an armed force of “Church Guardians,” though it is unclear whether the money comes from his personal fortune or the Kurdish government. Many refugees suspect the assistance is meant to buy Christian support for the Kurdish government in its rivalry with Baghdad and local Arab political parties, and to undermine activism for a Christian autonomous territory in the Nineveh plains. Some Christian community leaders welcome Kurdish patronage and support its state-building efforts in the region. Others have been harassed by Kurdish political groups and militias for challenging the expansion of the Kurdish government into Nineveh.

Many families who fled north are now planning to leave Iraq to seek employment and a safer, more stable life. Meanwhile, the central government continues to build new housing complexes and offer one-time payments of $1,500 for internally displaced families to return to their home cities. Church leaders also discourage emigration, but the security situation in larger cities is still fragile. Despite improved security -- provided by federal security forces -- many churches hold services only once or twice per month. Armed attacks on liquor shops continue. Women feel pressure -- on the street, in school and at work -- to conform to “Islamic” dress, and many Christian women wear hijab to avoid discrimination, harassment or violence. The competing narrow visions for Iraq’s future playing out in government chambers and on the streets leave the future of Iraqi Christians uncertain.

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