In Iraq, An Exodus Of Christians

May 14, 2009

Author: Paul Schemm

Source: Connecticut Post

Wire Service: AP

Iraq has lost more than half the Christians who once called it home, mostly since the war began, and few who fled have plans to return, The Associated Press has learned.

Pope Benedict XVI called attention to their plight during a Mideast visit this week, urging the international community to ensure the survival of "the ancient Christian community of that noble land."

The number of Arab Christians has plummeted across the Mideast in recent years as increasing numbers seek to move to the West, saying they feel increasingly unwelcome in the Middle East and want a better life abroad.

But the exodus has been particularly stark in Iraq—where sectarian violence since the U.S.-led 2003 invasion has often targeted Christians.

The AP found that hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled.

The situation holds practical implications for Iraq's future. Christians historically made up a large portion of the country's middle class, including key jobs as doctors, engineers, intellectuals and civil servants.

The last official Iraqi census in 1987 found 1.4 million Christians in the country. Now, according to the 2008 U.S. State Department report on International Religious Freedom, that number has dropped to between 550,000 and 800,000.

Some estimate the number is even lower: only 400,000, according to the German Catholic relief organization Kirche in Not. The number is echoed privately by many Iraqi Christians.

The vast majority of the exodus has happened since the 2003 invasion, the State Department and other statistics suggest. The State Department says as many as 1.2 million Christians remained into 2003.

Christians first began leaving Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, during the economic sanctions and repression under Saddam Hussein, who pushed more Islamist policies. But the trickle turned to a flood after Saddam was toppled in 2003 and the violence escalated, said a prominent Iraqi Christian lawmaker, Younadem Kana.