VATICAN CITY (CNS): Christians in post-war Iraq, already a tiny minority in the mostly Muslim country, continue to leave because of fear for their safety, and to a lesser extent, because of economic difficulties, Iraqi bishops said.
Concrete solutions and help from the international community are needed immediately if the flight of Christians is to be stopped, many warned at the Synod of Bishops for the Middle East, which ended with a Mass last Sunday (October 24).
Kidnappings for ransom, bombings of churches and other Christian buildings and a general lack of security have made life so precarious for the vulnerable Christian community that about half have left their homeland for safer destinations in the past seven years, the bishops said.
At least one bishop raised the question of systematic attacks as part of a “plan” to drive all Christians from the Middle East.
In comments both in and out of the synod hall, Iraqi bishops and priests painted a picture of extreme hardship for the small Christian community sticking it out in the country torn by violence since the United States-led invasion in 2003.
“Since the year 2003, Christians are the victims of a killing situation, which has provoked a great emigration from Iraq,” Syrian Archbishop Athanase Matoka of Baghdad told synod participants on October 16.
He blamed the invasion for bringing to Iraq in general and Christians in particular “destruction and ruin on all levels”.
Archbishop Matoka said that while violence targeting Christians appeared to have dropped off in the past two years, the general insecurity and instability of the situation in the country was such that Christians continued to emigrate.
“Where is the world conscience?” he asked. “We ask the great powers: Is it true that there is a plan to empty the Middle East of Christians and that Iraq is one of the victims?”
In a briefing with journalists on October 18, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad said that in the past he also suspected that there was a plot to rid the Middle East of Christians. “If you ask me by whom, or how, I don’t know,” he said. However, there has never been such mass emigration in the history of the country, he said.
At least 20 churches have been bombed, two bishops have been kidnapped and one of them killed, and about 20 priests abducted and tortured, Bishop Warduni said.
Whether or not there was targeted persecution of Christians, he said, what was driving them away now was the fact that “there is no peace, there is no security, there are no jobs”.
Chaldean Patriarchal Vicar of Amman Fr Raymond Moussalli said at the briefing that there were about 400,000 Iraqis in Jordan, a small country not well-equipped to handle a large refugee population. Of those, about five per cent were Christian, he said.
Before the invasion to oust dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, there were about 800,000 Christians in Iraq, but now there are 400,000 to 500,000, he said.
Many have left large cities for the relative security of the Kurdistan region, where there were now more than 200,000 Christians as opposed to the 150,000 left in Baghdad, Fr Moussalli said.
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