“Do we want our people to leave Iraq? The answer is no,” he told TAS. “Our ancestry in Iraq goes back 2,000 years before Christ.”
Christian population of Iraq, which has its roots in the ancient
Assyrians who embraced Christianity in biblical times, numbered 1.3
million before 2003. Over the next decade, nearly a million Christians
fled to neighboring countries. Many who became refugees fled to the West
if they could.
Most joined the Chaldean Christian community in
Michigan, which began in the 1870s. They had helped build the automobile
industry, saving factory wages to bring family members to the land of
opportunity. The Detroit community of Chaldeans now numbers 200,000 and
has associations for every profession from pharmaceutics to CPAs.
Iraqi Christians were an enterprising group and established smaller
communities in San Diego, Chicago, Arizona, and Las Vegas, while
maintaining ties to faith, family, and their home country community.
Christians in Iraq are known for being problem-solvers, the people who
extend the olive branch to others for reconciliation, bridge builders,”
In the violence and rising sectarianism that followed
the United States invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians fled to any
country that would take them. Christians generally left Iraq in a higher
proportion than did Muslims because they lacked resources to protect
themselves from regional conflicts. According to Open Doors, which
serves persecuted Christians worldwide, if trends continue, Iraq will
lose all its Christians within four years.
“[The Christians] are
the weakest of the weak because they don’t carry arms, they don’t form a
militia, they don’t have a police force, and the government is too weak
to protect them,” Kassab said.
Between the beginning of the Iraq war and 2010, the Chaldean
Christians in the United States added 60,000 to their number. Another
60,000 fled to Sweden, and 20,000 each fled to Canada and Australia, according to a Pew Research study.
Iraqi Christians fled to Syria, which is culturally similar to Iraq.
Syria was known as the safest country for Arab Christians until the
civil war proved to be the ultimate betrayal.
[against Christians in Syria] are being committed by people on all sides
of the dispute,” said Robert George, who has been chairman of the
United States Commission for International Religious Freedom. “It’s a
terrible tragedy that these ancient communities in the Middle East, in
the cradle of Christianity, are being emptied.”
continued to leave Iraq even after American troops did. While most
Americans would not now call Detroit a land of opportunity, four new
Chaldean Catholic parishes have opened there in the last five
years. Father Andrew Seba of the St. Thomas parish said the refugees
will go to whoever will take them, trading the threat of death and loss
of religious freedom in Iraq for the stress of unemployment and culture shock in Detroit.
“Right now it just seems as if there is no hope, but only time will tell,” he said.
330,000 Christians remain in Iraq, but they are now threatened by
extreme Islamists. ISIS now occupies the Nineveh plain, the site of
Iraq’s remaining Christian villages, and has already murdered some
Christians there for refusing to follow its ultra-strict rules.
Christians from Mosul and its neighboring villages have fled to
Kurdistan, where they feel somewhat safer. The Kurds have been friendly
to the Christians because, during their own period of intense
persecution by Saddam, they found support and safety in Christian
communities. The Kurds now return the kindness they once received by
protecting Christians; however, housing is expensive in Kurdistan, and
the Christian children are hampered in school because they do not speak
One Christian woman wrote from Kurdistan that the economy
is in shambles. They are trying to find a way to flee to Turkey and
register with the United Nations there, but they struggle to find fuel.
complete emigration of this ancient Christian community would be the
world’s loss, said Robert George, both as a blow to religious liberty
and to the Christian heritage. He lamented a lack of awareness among
American Christians, and pointed to how they lobbied the government
through churches on behalf of the Jews trapped behind the Soviet Iron
“Christians ought to be able to do for their fellow
Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Iraq what they did for the Soviet Jews,”
Kassab has spent the last thirty-five years
advocating with the government on behalf of his fellow refugees, even
traveling to Iraq eleven times during the war.
“I thought, if God
gave me this golden opportunity [to come to the U.S.], what can I do
for others?” he said. He believes that the Christian population in Iraq
can be saved only by international support or, if they are allowed to
have their independence, Kurdish protection.
He spoke of his
people as devout and faithful Christians, but unique as “the only people
who could understand Jesus Christ speaking Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ.” As Christians, he said they are no strangers to fleeing because of persecution.
and Joseph fled as refugees to Egypt,” he said. “This will strengthen
our faith and give us more belief in God, and give us determination to
make us more faithful.”
Lucy Schouten is an editorial intern at The American Spectator.
She is a senior studying journalism, Arabic, and Middle East issues at
Brigham Young University in Utah. She can be reached via Twitter