|"At monasteries in Qosh, Christians who fled Baghdad's strife for the Kurdish north are now abandoning the area, ground down in part by a lack of jobs." (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)|
By Jack Healy
The New York Times, March 10, 2012
"Iraq's dwindling Christians, driven from their homes by attacks and intimidation, are beginning to abandon the havens they had found in the country's north, discouraged by unemployment and a creeping fear that the violence they had fled was catching up to them. Their quiet exodus to Turkey, Jordan, Europe and the United States is the latest chapter of a seemingly inexorable decline that many religious leaders say tolls the twilight of Christianity in a land where city skylines have long been marked by both minarets and church steeples. Recent assessments say that Iraq’s Christian population has now fallen by more than half since the 2003 American invasion, and with the military's departure, some Christians say they lost a protector of last resort. Their flight is felt in places like the wind-scoured village of Tenna, which has sheltered dozens of Christian migrants over the past nine years. The families fleeing Baghdad's death squads and bombings found safety here beneath the hulking mountains, but little else besides poverty, boredom and cold. Villagers estimate that half of the 50 or so Christian homes are now empty, their families abroad. Walid Shamoon, 42, wants to be the next to leave. He said he left Iraq's capital in January 2011 after a confrontation with Shiite militia members set off a nightmare of escalating death threats and an attempt on his life. A brother had already been killed in a mortar attack six years earlier, so he said he quit his contract job with the Australian Embassy, giving up a $1,500 monthly salary, and came here. These days, all he can think about is his application to emigrate to Arizona. 'This is not a life,' he said one recent afternoon, as a blizzard raced down from the mountains. 'There is no improvement. There is no work.' Many of the people now struggling in Iraq's Kurdish north came in the wake of a suicide attack in Baghdad at Our Lady of Salvation Church in October 2010. It was the single worst assault on Iraq's Christians since the war began, one that left 50 worshipers and 2 priests dead and that turned the church into a charnel house of scorched pews and shattered stained glass.
Christian families in Baghdad grabbed clothing, cash and a few other provisions and headed north for the Christian communities along the Nineveh plain and Kurdistan's three provinces. They joined tens of thousands of other Christians from the capital, Mosul and other cities who traced similar arcs after earlier attacks and assassination campaigns. 'They traded everything for security,' said the Rev. Gabriel Tooma, who leads the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in the Christian town of Qosh, which took in dozens of families. The Christians in northern Iraq make up a tiny fraction of Iraq's legions of displaced people. In all, there are 1.3 million of them across the country, according to the most recent United Nations estimates. Many live in garbage dumps, shanty towns and squalor far worse than anything facing the Christian families in Kurdistan. Still, Christians and other minorities were singled out in the years of sectarian cleansing that bifurcated a once-diverse Baghdad into pockets of Sunnis and Shiites. Estimates by the United States and international organizations say that Iraq’s prewar Christian population of 800,000 to 1.4 million now stands at less than 500,000. 'The consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in Iraq,' the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote in its most recent annual report, summarizing the concerns of church leaders. In January, the International Organization for Migration found that 850 of 1,350 displaced Christian families it was tracking in northern Iraq had left in the past year. Many cited fears about security as well as the strains of finding work, housing and schools in an unfamiliar place where they had few connections and spoke only Arabic, and not Kurdish. ... Even in the relative safety of Kurdistan, some Christians say they still live in apprehension. A kidnapping of a Christian businessman in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, and a recent outbreak of riots and arson attacks against Christian-owned liquor stores in Dohuk Province -- the northernmost in Iraq, along the Turkish border -- have deeply unsettled Christian migrants to the area. [...]"