Christianity’s Struggle for Survival Intensifies in Iraq

An Iraqi archbishop — who for years stood out virtually alone in predicting better times for the country’s ancient Church — has given a more pessimistic assessment, saying that hopes for a new start after Saddam have now evaporated. Archbishop Louis Sako said that the future of Christianity in Iraq — even in the short-to-medium term — now “hangs in the balance.”

In a wide-ranging interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Archbishop of Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, said the faithful’s confidence in the future has been destroyed by what he described as a worsening security situation. Explaining that Christians are “easy targets for criminals” because they lack the protection of militia, he stressed how more and more faithful are desperate to leave.

He said there are now only 300 Christian families in southern Iraq and less than 400,000 Christians in the country as a whole — down 750,000 within the past decade. The archbishop lambasted the country’s security system, calling it “ineffective” and “unprofessional.”

He underlined the continuing exodus of Christians sparked by the security crisis, adding, “I feel more pessimistic now than ever before. We do not have the same hope that we had before. In fact I am not seeing any signs of hope for the future. Our whole future hangs in the balance.”

The bishop continued, saying, “We are experiencing bad days. Every group involved in criminal activity seems to be active. The government and the police are doing their best but they are incapable of controlling the situation.” He went on to say, “Nor is this just happening in one part of Iraq. Every day, there are explosions — in Baghdad, Mosul, so many different places.”

The archbishop was speaking by telephone from Kirkuk 10 days after attacks there in which a Christian father of three was shot dead and a doctor was abducted on his way home. Last month, militants carried out attacks on seven churches in Baghdad, killing and injuring dozens of people. Nearly 100 people were killed and more than 500 were injured in a series of attacks in Baghdad last week, described as the deadliest day since the U.S. handover.

Archbishop Sako warned of the rise of extremism, saying, “Iraq is going to a narrow Islam.” He also said the Christian exodus was being driven by economics: “In the villages in the north there are no jobs, no services, no facilities — many Christians are leaving …in Mosul [the northern city and former Christian heartland] many Christian families are too afraid to come back.”

The archbishop said Christians are a principal target for attack not so much because of their religion but because they are seen as unable to defend themselves. He said, “Living in this climate, the Christian people are afraid. They are really worried. Despite what we tell them, encouraging them to stay, they want to leave…. It just takes one crime, one abduction, one killing to move the whole community into wanting to move.”

Archbishop Sako said the people had lost patience with the country’s politicians, and he asked Western countries to put pressure on Iraqi political groups to reconcile in a bid to reduce the conflict and restore law and order. The archbishop also said Church leaders and Christian politicians are not doing enough to work together to confront common problems.

The archbishop also went on to highlight the importance of inter-faith work, describing it as crucial for coexistence between Christians and Muslims. But he said that the inter-faith initiatives he is involved with in Kirkuk — for example a dinner he is hosting for Ramadan this weekend — are largely not being replicated elsewhere in the country. He added that the work is relatively small-scale and tends to involve “individuals” rather than the “large groups” crucial for attitude change towards minorities.

He said, “There can be no proper security without a real reconciliation. The only people who seem to be benefiting from the situation at the moment are the criminals. This has got to change.”

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