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In Iraq the very survival of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities now hangs in the balance. Continuing attacks against the faithful have prompted successive waves of emigration. According to UN reports in 2010, of the 1.6 million Iraqi refugees abroad, up to 40 percent were thought to be Christians. According to some of the country’s most senior bishops, over the past decade the number of Christians haemorrhaged from nearly 900,000 to perhaps fewer than 200,000, a rate of decline far steeper than official figures suggest. By 2011, some sources gave an even lower figure for the number of Christians left in Iraq. Nor does there seem any end in sight to the problem, with Christian emigration continuing unabated.
Catholic leaders said the number of Christians remaining in Baghdad by early 2011 would be a mere fraction of the 200,000 living there at the start of 2003. Even more Christians fled the city after the 31st October 2010 siege of Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Syrian Catholic Cathedral. The massacre of at least 52 people – the worst atrocity to befall Iraq’s Christians in modern times – put the international spotlight on the plight of the country’s frightened and bewildered faithful. It was now beyond doubt that Christians were the specific target of the attacks, and that the message extremists wanted to send out was that Christians should leave Iraq. Between 2003 and 2010 more than 2,000 Christians are thought to have been killed by violence, many targeted primarily because of their faith. Church figures said recently that one bishop and six priests had been killed since 2002 and more than 30 churches attacked. After successive attacks against Christian churches, homes and businesses, many Christians had become desperate for a new beginning in a new country, preferably in the West. Pressure has been mounting for Western countries to provide asylum for Iraqi Christians, although many Catholic leaders called for the faithful to stay in the country if at all possible.
Christians were under threat not only in Baghdad but all over the country where attacks were taking place with varying degrees of severity. The northern city of Mosul was a focus for especially vicious violence. In autumn 2008 a campaign of intimidation, including the assassination of more than a dozen Christians, sparked a mass exodus of more than 12,000 Christians from the city. They were still reeling from the tragic loss of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul. The sick prelate was kidnapped outside his cathedral in Mosul at the end of February 2008 and died in captivity. Barely two weeks after he was taken into captivity, his body was dumped in the city in a shallow grave. A boost to morale came in January 2010, when Amil Nona was appointed as Mgr Rahho’s successor as Archbishop of Mosul. Aged 42, he became reportedly the world’s youngest Catholic archbishop.
But youth and optimism would face an apparently insurmountable obstacle in the form of continuing attacks on churches and other Christian communities. In early 2010, a further wave of violence and intimidation forced more than 4,000 Christians to flee Mosul. It soon emerged that safety could not be guaranteed even in the ancient Christian villages in the famous Nineveh Plains outside Mosul. Threats and occasional attacks in this, a principal heartland of Christianity in the region, made plain the scale of the threat against the faithful. Matters came to a head in May 2010, when a convoy of Christian buses travelling from Nineveh Christian villages to Mosul came under fire. In the ambush, 190 Christian youngsters received injuries, mostly to their faces.
The seemingly unrelenting intimidation and violence against Christians meant increasing numbers of faithful felt they had no option but to flee. The most immediate place of sanctuary has proved to be the Kurdish north of Iraq. However, continuing fears for their safety and acute poverty have forced vast numbers to travel abroad to neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Turkey. Many have been desperate to start a new life in the West. In Syria, Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo masterminded a programme of emergency aid for Iraqi Christian refugees, providing medical aid, shelter, food and community support. His relief work was among a number of refugee programmes supported by charities including Aid to the Church in Need.
Back in Iraq, the continuing attacks on people of all faiths – Sunni and Shiite Muslims especially – made clear that the Christians were not the only ones being targeted. However, their ever-dwindling numbers and their complete reliance on government security meant that the Christians’ suffering was especially tragic. But amid all the suffering the stoic example of individual Christians told a very different story, one of faithful dedication in times of acute misery. On 3rd June 2007, Fr Ragheed Ganni was killed not far from his Holy Spirit Church in Mosul. The one survivor of the shoot-out, which also claimed the lives of three sub-deacons, later told how the gunmen condemned 35-year-old Fr Ragheed for not closing his church. The priest responded: “How could I close the house of God?” Moments later he was shot dead. Fr Ragheed’s memory was an inspiration to many, especially other young clergy. A week after the 31st October 2010 massacre at Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic Cathedral, two young priests came to serve the shell-shocked community, replacing two other young clergy shot dead on that fateful day.
The continued activity of extremist groups seemed to make clear that the campaign against insurgents had proved far from successful. When the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’, an organisation with links to al-Qaeda, took responsibility for attacks including the October 2010 Baghdad cathedral siege, it served as an indictment of the country’s uncertain political situation nine months on from the inconclusive outcome of parliamentary elections. Amid international outrage about the country’s apparently parlous security situation, the pressure was mounting on Jalal Talabani who, after months of political wrangling, emerged in late 2010 to start a second term as president.
Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) supports several projects in Iraq. You can support these projects by donating via their national offices.
Below you can find one or more finished projects ACN supported in the past.
This was one of the worst outrages against the Christian community in Iraq. Seven armed men, fitted with explosive belts, stormed the Syrian Catholic cathedral of Sayidat-al-Nejat in Baghdad, while Holy Mass was being celebrated, and shot the two priests, followed by many of the faithful. When the police arrived, the terrorists blew themselves up, killing many more of the faithful as they did so. Read more >>
The Christians in Iraq have little left but hope – hope for an end one day to the madness in their country. Anyone who can leave does so. Church sources estimate that over 200,000 Christians have left Iraq so far. Read more >>
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