‘War has sown the seeds of religious violence for a generation. The future looks bleak for Christians in Iraq, as the Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict spreads across the Middle East.’
The Iraq war has been a tragedy for Christians in Iraq and the Middle East, believes Release International, leading to a massive exodus of historic communities from the lands of the Bible.
Iraq once boasted one of the most established Christian minorities in the region, dating back to the birth of the faith. But Christians have left in their droves since the war against Saddam Hussein in 2003.
‘Christians have lost their trust in the land and the future,’ Chaldean Archbishop Bashar M Warda told the UK-based Release International. ‘The attack on Christians has been immense. Pray for their safety in this chaotic situation.’
As the haemorrhage from Iraq continues, observers say just a quarter of a million Christians remain – while upwards of four-fifths have fled the country.
Iraq is now considered one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian, ranking close to the top of the persecution watch lists. The exodus gathered pace when law and order broke down after the invasion of Iraq.
Today the Christian presence itself is now dwindling, not only in Iraq, but in the surrounding nations. Christians have been driven out by extremists who have flourished in the power vacuum created by the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
‘In our visits to help persecuted Christians, many ordinary Iraqis told us that things had been better for believers under Saddam Hussein,’ says Release Chief Executive, Paul Robinson.
‘Few had fond words for the dictator, who kept the church under tight surveillance and imprisoned some evangelicals, but the constant refrain was that Iraq had been safer under Saddam.’
When the allies removed Saddam and dismantled his army and system of government they kicked open a door to chaos, extremism and religious cleansing. Significant numbers of Iraqi children have been traumatised by conflict and are considered easy prey for radicalisation.
‘The war has sown the seeds of religious violence for a generation,’ says Paul Robinson, looking back on the Chilcot Report into the Iraq war.
Even though the Iraqi army has been gaining ground, large swathes of the country remain under the control of Islamic State, the terror group that sprang from al-Qaeda.
IS has demolished churches and confiscated Christian property. Their fighters have abducted Christian and Yazidi women as sex slaves.
The collapse of government in Syria and insurgency in Iraq have allowed IS to extend its so-called caliphate from Syria to Iraq.
IS militants have given Christians the ultimatum: convert, submit, or die. Thousands have been stripped of their belongings and forced from their homes to trek through the desert to Kurdistan.
And religious conservatism and intolerance is spreading to areas beyond IS control.
In Basra, which was formerly under British control, Christian women have been threatened in the workplace and forced to wear headscarves. Many have been driven out.
Lena told Release: ‘People were threatening us. My daughter received a letter with a bullet in it.’ Another daughter, Dahlia added: The extremists said we had to leave or we will shoot you. We were very scared. We had no choice. We left.’
They, too, headed for Kurdistan.
Much the same has been happening in Baghdad, where many of the remaining Christian women have been forced to wear headscarves and up to two thirds of the homes belonging to Christians have been taken.
So what about areas of Iraq under government control? Reports persist of low-level persecution against Christians under the government and its Shia-dominated army.
Another threat to Christians is lawlessness. Kidnapping is now commonplace.
‘The future looks bleak for Christians in Iraq,’ says Paul Robinson of Release, ‘as the Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict spreads across the Middle East. Christians, as ever, are caught in the crossfire.’
Shia areas of Baghdad are frequently targeted by IS suicide bombers, who killed more than 280 in a single attack last weekend. And Sunni Kurdistan is constantly on the alert against infiltration from Shia Iran on its border.
Baghdad once had a thriving Christian community. Now most have left. The’ar and his family fled Baghdad after extremists bombed their church, killing 58, including two members of their family.
They headed north to the Christian village of Qaraqosh in the hope of finding safety. But they had to flee again when it was captured by Islamic State.
‘There is no hope,’ The’ar told Release. ‘Since [the invasion in] 2003, we have all this bombing and fighting. We have no future. Our prayer is to leave this country, just to be human and to raise our kids with dignity.’
Despite the turmoil, there are some rays of light. One is the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan, which has declared itself a safe haven for Christian refugees. It is one of the few areas of the Middle East where churches for Muslim-background believers are flourishing. In other areas dominated by extremists, Muslim converts are killed as heretics.
However, some Christians in Kurdistan complain that their lands and houses are being seized, and Kurds, who are Sunni, fear being caught up in a sectarian conflict with neighbouring Iran, which is Shia.
‘Kurdistan is a place of relative safety for Christians – please pray for them,’ says Paul Robinson of Release. ‘Another encouraging sign is that Muslims, sickened by the violence being carried out in the name of religion, are coming to faith in Christ across the Middle East. So please pray that that Christian faith both survives and thrives in this region. Pray also that Christian refugees are afforded the same aid and treatment as others.’
Release is working in Iraq to support Christian refugees by providing relief aid and training.
Through its international network of missions Release serves persecuted Christians in 30 countries around the world, by supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice. Release is a member of the UK organisations Global Connections and the Evangelical Alliance.