By Wall Street Journal
Surrounded by a blast wall topped with razor-sharp concertina wire, Our
Lady of Salvation Church in downtown Baghdad resembles a fortress more
than a sanctuary. Despite the fortifications, however, those who worship
there are feeling more vulnerable than ever.
An appeal for
help in guarding the Syriac Catholic Church this month brought no
volunteers. A ragtag trio of armed men protects the churchyard. At Mass,
guards patted down worshipers and checked their belongings for
concealed weapons and explosives. Only a few dozen people occupied the
pews, the wan echo of their voices lost in the vast nave where hundreds
used to worship each week.
As Sunni militants of the Islamic State
of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, sweep through the country, the church's
small congregation and makeshift defenders highlight the precarious
condition of Iraq's Christian community. The community's ranks have
shrunk by half in the past decade, as the devout flee the sectarian
violence that has become a hallmark of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
man at the church said that the country's largest religious
communities--Sunni Muslims and Shiites--have often been too busy
fighting each other to hunt Christians, but it is different this time.
all these terrorists are here from across the Middle East, and they
want to cleanse the Christians," said a 35-year-old armed guard at a
checkpoint outside the church's main entrance. "The youth have left.
There's no one left to defend the church, and if I had the chance, I'd
In 2010, the congregation had a taste of the perils
that possibly lay ahead. At least 58 people were killed when ISIS
militants attacked the church and took more than 100 hostages.
the members of Our Lady of Salvation worry that they will again be
targeted in a sectarian attack, other Iraqi Christians are simply trying
to avoid being caught in the tightening vise of extremist Sunni
fighters and their foes.
On Tuesday, Syriac Catholics were among those fleeing the northern town
of Qaraqosh as clashes raged between ISIS and Kurdish Peshmerga forces,
residents said. ISIS mortars intended for the Peshmerga hit Qaraqosh,
triggering the exodus of most of the 50,000 residents to Iraq's
autonomous Kurdistan region and its capital, Erbil.
fighting force stayed behind in Qaraqosh to defend its religious sites,
some dating to the eighth century. The Iraqi military was stretched too
thin to help, said Ammar To'ma, a member of parliament's security and
"No one is left in the village," said a teacher from Qaraqosh, who escaped to Erbil on Wednesday. "It was total chaos."
Christians risk becoming collateral damage in the main sectarian
battle, said Bassim Bello, the mayor of nearby Tilkif.
Christians are the weakest chain in Iraq's society, and we've always
warned that we will be the victims of any fighting," Mr. Bello said.
Baghdad on Tuesday, Yonadam Kanna, a member of parliament and the
leader of the main Christian party, the Assyrian Democratic
Movement,paced nervously in his office as he watched the news from
In search of help, he called the United Nations mission
to Iraq, the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi military. He reached no one of
influence, so he left messages.
"We're trying to stop those bloody
guys," Mr. Kanna said, referring to ISIS. "I'm not confident we can.
They are aggressive and have heavy weapons. We only have a few
While he waited impatiently for his calls to be
returned, Mr. Kanna recalled the days when Iraq's Sunnis, Shiites and
Christians celebrated religious holidays together and intermarried, and
Baghdad boasted a vibrant Jewish community.
In today's Iraq,
Shiites make up about 60% of the population and Sunnis 32%, while
Christians and other minorities compose 3%, according to the CIA World
For Mr. Kanna, the intolerance of ISIS militants toward
non-Sunni religious faiths isn't entirely to blame for the dwindling
Christian community. Christians themselves, he said, have chosen to
emigrate rather than struggle to keep their foothold in Iraq. He accuses
Western nations, even the U.S. president, of encouraging their flight.
told Obama to stop the immigration of Christians. Stop this policy of
vacuuming up the Christians of the Middle East. It is destroying the
community," said Mr. Kanna, citing a letter he wrote to the White House
several months ago.
His homily was interrupted by the ringing of his phone. It was a U.S. Embassy official returning his call.
"Hello. I just wanted to inform you that the biggest Christian community, Qaraqosh, is being attacked," Mr. Kanna said politely.
The embassy official asked Mr. Kanna to identify himself. He sighed.
"You met me yesterday."
Laith al-Haydair contributed to this article.