Christians in Iraq are beginning to flee the only place where they thought they were safe – their ancient homelands in the Nineveh plains.
Reports have come in from clergy in the north of the country that in the past few months a slow but steady emigration has gotten under-way from the villages and towns close to Mosul city, which trace their heritage back to the earliest Christian centuries.
The reports are coming after warnings of another blow to the Church expected in the immediate run-up to the January 2010 general elections.
With government ministers publicly expecting a surge in violence as people prepare to go to the polls, Church leaders fear that a new security crisis could spark another mass exodus of Christians, which in some areas may mean the departure of the last remaining faithful.
In an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), leading Iraqi priest Fr. Bashar Warda made clear that Christians in the Nineveh region are now beginning to feel threatened by the kind of security problems which have blighted the lives of people in so many other parts of the country.
Speaking from northern Iraq on Monday, September 28th, Fr. Warda told the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, “I am sad to say that the emigration of Christian families that we have seen in places like Mosul and Baghdad has now begun to affect the Nineveh area.” He continued, saying, “We are not seeing – at least not yet – a large emigration from places like Alqosh and other [Nineveh] villages, but it is definitely happening.”
Fr. Warda said he could not give precise estimates of the number leaving the region but he said that a number of exclusively Christian villages have each been losing 30 or 40 faithful every month, sometimes more.
The news has added significance because the many almost completely Christian villages in the region had become a refuge for faithful under threat in other parts of the region. When thousands of Christians fled for their lives following a spate of killings and anti-Christian propaganda in Mosul about a year ago, many took refuge in the Nineveh plains.
Fr. Warda, who is Rector of St. Peter’s Major Seminary in Ankawa, outside Erbil, the provincial capital of the Kurdish north of Iraq, went on to say that the emigration from Nineveh is expected to speed up after a popular doctor was kidnapped at her home in Bartala, one of the most important towns in the region. Dr. Mahasin Bashir was freed on Sunday, September 27th, from the town of Baashiqa, about 10 miles from her home in Bartala.
The abduction of the gynecologist has, according to Fr. Bashar, “sent major shockwaves” across the region, which until recently has been largely free from the kidnappings, explosions and other incidents affecting other parts of the country.
Concerns that the violence has spread to Nineveh will be a challenge to many Iraqi observers who report that terrorists linked to radical political movements have deliberately kept the region safe to encourage Christians to stay there in a bid to create a so-called safe haven for the faithful.
Christians in Iraq, who numbered 1.4 million at the last census in 1987, are now down to less than 400,000, according to latest estimates. At least 800,000 Christians – proportionately far higher than other religious groups – have fled the country since the security-breakdown of the immediate post-Saddam years.
Fr. Warda went on warn that a sudden escalation in violence in the run-up to the general elections due on the January 30th, 2010, elections may prove catastrophic for the future survival of the Church with yet more Christians leaving the country.
“Of course it would be dangerous to speculate, but if the violence becomes worse, it will seriously endanger our situation,” the priest said. “It is clear that whenever a problem suddenly gets worse, the first solution the Christians look for is emigration.”