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Security concerns and hardship drive Christians out of northern Iraq

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Security concerns and hardship drive Christians out of northern Iraq

Country/Region: Iraq, Middle East and North Africa

Iraqi Christians are running out of havens in their homeland as rising security concerns and economic hardship cause them to leave the places of refuge they had found in the country’s Kurdish north.   

A surge in anti-Christian violence following the US-led invasion in 2003 prompted thousands of believers to flee their homes in the most dangerous parts of Iraq, such as the capital, Baghdad, and Mosul. Some left for neighbouring countries, notably Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, while others headed north to the autonomous region of Kurdistan, which welcomed Christians and was relatively safe.

zakho-riots-4x3.jpg
Christian-owned shops in Kurdistan were torched by Islamists
CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The worst-ever attack on Iraqi Christians, a siege on a church in Baghdad in October 2010 that left over 50 people dead, prompted another flight to Kurdistan, where there were already tens of thousands of Christian exiles.

But now, because of incidents of anti-Christian violence there, as well as economic hardship, they are starting to leave; many are seeking immigration to Turkey, Europe and the USA.

In January, the International Organisation for Migration found that 63 per cent of the displaced Christian families that it was monitoring in northern Iraq had left in the past year. Many of them said that they were concerned about security, and were having difficulty finding employment, housing and schools. Most of them speak only Arabic, not Kurdish, which severely restricts their opportunities.

The Kurdish government has offered land, free fuel and other assistance to Christians, but many families are struggling to make ends meet. 

And violent attacks, like the ones that Christians fled elsewhere in Iraq, are starting to happen in Kurdistan. When Christian-owned shops in Dohuk Province were torched by Islamists in December, Salam Meti Abdul Karim, a Christian who fled there from Mosul seven years ago after retrieving his son from kidnappers, said it was “like history was repeating itself”.

He added:

We worry the situation is just going to devolve into violence. I was thinking to just take my family and go up to the mountains.

In another worrying attack on the Christian community in Kurdistan, Sermat Patros, a 29-year-old Christian man, was kidnapped and held for three days before being rescued by a SWAT team.

Berkho Odeesho, mayor of Dawudiyah village, said, “We found safety in Kurdistan, but things are getting unstable. We don’t know where to go.”

There were 1.5m Christians in Iraq in 1990; there are estimated to be fewer than 500,000 today and it seems likely that their number will continue to fall.

In its most recent annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote, “The consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in Iraq.”

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