A choir dressed in crimson robes sang ancient
hymns below a Christmas star strung with fairy lights at a recent
service in the Iraqi capital, the heavy scent of incense hanging in the
air. But the season here has a somber edge, and the priest has a serious
message for his congregation: Stay.
Just a year ago, an Advent
service at St. George’s Chaldean Catholic Church would have drawn 300 to
400 worshipers, says the Rev. Miyassir al-Mokhlasee. But now only
around 75 people are scattered across its pews.
concrete blast walls and police checkpoints, the church has seen its
congregation shrink for the past decade. The instability and violence
following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 have driven many Christians out
of the country. The nation’s Christian population has plummeted from
more than a million to what community leaders estimate is less than
Conquests by extremists from
the Islamic State, known for their cutthroat brutality and intolerance
for other religions, have delivered another blow to Christians in their
For the first time in well more than a
millennium, the plains of Nineveh and its provincial capital of Mosul
have been virtually emptied of Christians. Islamic State fighters, who
control the northern region, had ordered Christian residents to convert,
pay a tax for keeping their faith or face execution.
Religious sites such as Mosul’s tomb of Jonah,
the ancient figure whose story of being swallowed by a whale is told in
the Christian and Muslim holy books, have been blasted apart. Other
minorities such as the ethnic Shabak and the long-persecuted Yazidis have faced similar mass displacement and killings in the once richly diverse region.
reverberations are being felt further afield in the capital, where
families are packing to leave — hoping to gain a new life overseas.
Imad, 22, a Catholic resident of the middle-class Baghdad neighborhood
of Zayouna and sales manager for an international cigarette firm, is one
of them. This Christmas will be his last in Iraq, he said.
parents have sold their house and cars. As soon as his father finishes a
round of medical treatment, the family will travel to Turkey, where
they plan to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for
Refugee’s asylum program, with the hope of being resettled in North
America, Europe or Australia.
They might have to wait a long time before they reach one of those
destinations. But Imad doesn’t care. He has spent years lobbying his
family to emigrate from Iraq, but his father had not wanted to leave his
elderly parents behind.
“At first my father insisted we stay,”
he said. “But my father’s had a job, a career. My grandfather is an old
man, he’s lived. Now it’s my turn to live my life, and there’s no future
It was the Islamic State offensive this summer — in which the extremists overran Mosul — that finally convinced Imad’s father that it was time to leave.
who pack up and go don’t tell their friends and neighbors, virtually
disappearing overnight. In the precarious security environment, families
fear that they will become a target for kidnappers in the days before
they leave the country, as word spreads that they are cash-rich after
having sold assets such as houses and cars.
“If it stays this
way, we will shrink to nothing,” said Father Mokhlasee, sinking his head
into his hands. “We believe that God wants us here for diversity in the
region. Unfortunately, people are afraid of the future, and they are
One of Iraq’s most senior Christian religious figures,
Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Sako, has accused the United States of
being “indirectly responsible” for the exodus of one of the world’s
most ancient Christian communities, pointing to the chaos caused by the
In the sectarian warfare and
lawlessness that followed the outbreak of war, Christians were often
caught in the crossfire or targeted for kidnapping. In Imad’s
neighborhood, Christian shops have been attacked for selling alcohol,
and many have closed down.
In July, lines formed daily outside the French Embassy in Baghdad after Paris announced it was ready to facilitate asylum for displaced Christians. Iraqi Christian communities in the United States have called on the Obama administration to do the same.
But Younadam Kanna, a prominent Christian parliamentarian, maintains that such programs are counterproductive.
“It’s a disaster,” he said. “Violence and discrimination and
corruption are kicking us out, then others are pulling us out. The
international community is encouraging Christians to leave. This is
destroying our community here.”
It is not
the first time Father Mokhlasee’s church has witnessed an exodus. In
2010, when an attack on Baghdad’s Syriac Catholic Cathedral during
evening Mass left 58 dead, the Iraqi capital’s Christian community was
shaken. The priest said few of those who left his parish after that
He fears his church will not be able to survive the loss of many more parishioners.
are becoming fewer in number,” he said in his Advent sermon. “We ask
God that we can keep our churches, keep our country. We have a message
that people should stay in this country.”
But afterward, as families milled around in the church’s courtyard, he said he feared his message is falling on deaf ears.
my family is leaving,” the priest said. His brother with his wife and
four children are planning to move to Jordan after losing their farm in
the Nineveh town of Qaraqosh when it was overrun this summer. “He’s
looking for a future for his children.”
Per l'italiano vedi Adnkronos:
Chiese vuote e bagagli pronti, Natale amaro per i cristiani di Baghdad