ROME – According to a new report from Catholic charity organization Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Christians in Iraq could dwindle to a staggeringly low number as fears increase over security, corruption and a possible resurgence of ISIS.
“The international community must take immediate and decisive action to tackle the problems which are threatening the continuing Christian presence in Iraq,” Edward Clancy, director of outreach for ACN in the United States, said about the report.
“It is more important than ever that world leaders work together to prevent Christian numbers falling further in Iraq,” he said.
According to the report, published July 7 and titled, “Life after ISIS: New Challenges for Christianity in Iraq,” the number of Christians in the region could drop to 23,000 by the year 2024, just 20 percent of the Christian population in the Nineveh Plains before ISIS attacked.
This drop, which the report warns is imminent unless immediate action is taken, would mean Christians would be moved from the “vulnerable” category to “endangered with extinction.”
Christians surveyed for the report cited the lack of security as a primary concern. Roughly 87 percent of Christians said they felt the security void “very much” or “remarkably,” and around 70 percent said the main reasons for their current unease are violence from local militias and fears about a possible resurgence of ISIS, which in 2014 decimated the Nineveh Plains and sent roughly 120,000 Iraqi Christians fleeing not only their homes, but their country.
Some 69 percent of Christians polled said they were considering immigrating outside of Iraq due to a lack of security, with most concern surrounding the Shabak Militia and the Babylon Brigade, both of which are backed by Iran and operate with permission from the central government due to their role in helping to defeat ISIS.
However, the militias have come under fire for human rights abuses and corruption, as well as clashes with U.S. military.
Some 24 percent of Christians said they or their family have been negatively impacted by these militias or other hostile groups, either with harassment, intimidation, or demands for money, according to ACN’s report.
One resident of Qaraqosh quoted in the report said that the militias “are doing negative things. They’re taking on an administrative and economic role. In some places, if you want to open a shop – like a restaurant – you can’t do that without paying a sum of money to a militia. Likewise, if you’re trying to transport goods from Erbil to Mosul, they won’t let you past a checking point unless you pay a tax.”
Other factors that are making some consider leaving Iraq for good are unemployment, financial and administrative corruption, and religious discrimination. There is also substantial work that still needs to be done in terms of reconstruction on the Nineveh Plain, as many houses, buildings, churches and roads in the area are still in ruins.
According to the report, another resident of Qaraqosh, which was known as the “Christian capital” of Iraq prior to ISIS’s takeover in 2014, said that “Life is better now but I have an eye problem. I would like to leave Iraq, but only with my family. The problem is that even if the government changes the people will be the same. I still think about ISIS and remember what happened.”
Residents who have family members living abroad are also hearing continual reports that life is better elsewhere, discouraging Christians from staying.
The report also indicated that religious practice among Christians has slightly declined, with some saying the ordeal with ISIS strengthened their faith, while others said they felt hopeless and confused.
Father Andrzej Halemba, head of ACN’s projects in the Middle East, said the report is not pessimistic, but is “a clear warning because without concerted and immediate political action the presence of Christians in the region of the Nineveh Plains and its surroundings will be eliminated.”
The outlook, he said, “is inevitably bleak because Christians feel that they have reached a turning point in terms of the viability of their presence in the region.”
Halemba stressed that various containment strategies, plans and initiatives are available that are “not only feasible but sustainable if given regional, national and international cooperation.”
“As many and varied as these strategies may be, what they all have in common is urgency,” he said, and called for a permanent representation of Christians at both the national and local governmental levels in order to ensure that their rights are defended, “especially the right to equal citizenship.”
“On our side we will do everything in our power,” he said. “Never should future generations say of us: you did too little, too late.”
In a bid to counter a mass exodus of Iraq’s remaining Christians, Cardinal Louis Raphael Sako, Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, last month requested that a meeting among local church leaders and entities be organized to discuss the situation of Christians in Iraq, specifically exploring their presence in Iraqi life and society and the main challenges which cause their marginalization and threaten their existence in the country.
He also asked that a vision be developed for finding solutions to these problems, that Christians form an organized and unified presence in the region, and that a media strategy be developed for guiding public opinion both inside of Iraq and abroad.
In a July 2 letter to faithful for the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, Patron of the Chaldean Church, Sako insisted that despite their difficulties, the Chaldeans “will remain the voice of our citizens in their difficult circumstances, especially those who are still living in their homeland, proud of their history and identity.”
“We need to join hands and unite efforts with everyone in these harsh conditions, to improve their living conditions, rights, representation, security and stability,” he said, and voiced thanks to all those who helped with reconstruction after the Nineveh Plains were liberated from ISIS.
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