Before 2003, Iraqi Christians comprised about 5 percent of the overall population of Iraq, or between 650,000 and 1 million of roughly 24 million. (Some anecdotally suggest that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the percentage was as high as 20 %.) For hundreds of years, they lived with Iraqi Muslims and with Iraqis of other religions and sects in a harmonious and cooperative way. There were, of course, historical exceptions. However, the political situation and social stability for all Iraqis deteriorated gradually after the year 2003 until it became what it is today endangering the lives of all citizens, as if it is following an organized plan in this direction. This deterioration has led to an absence in security visible in explosions, assassinations, kidnapping and forced migration, and has resulted in the aggravation of unemployment, and rising of prices and a high cost of living. Consequently, the daily social and security situation deteriorated for all citizens, including the Christians.
In addition to the general deterioration, some specific developments have emerged in Iraq that have had negative repercussions on the situation of the Christians in particular. These include the following:
- The appearance of sectarian tension between Sunni and Shi`ite Muslims and the emergence of extremists among both groups from outside of Iraq have had a negative impact on the Christians. Extremists have threatened Christians, kidnapped them, and put pressure on them either to convert to Islam or to pay large sums of money. If they are not able to pay, they may be subject to torture or murder. In some instances, Christians have paid those large sums but are nonetheless killed and their bodies discarded. This practice has not been limited to laypeople but has also affected the clergy, some of whom have been kidnapped or killed.
- Some Christian families, in certain regions, are forced to migrate because they are considered infidels by the extremist elements. Threats lead them to leave their houses and seek to live with relatives in other regions of Iraq. For example, Christian families move from the southern and central regions of Iraq to the North, mainly to the Kurdistan region. All of this causes great distress and psychological pressure.
- Efforts are made to force the wearing the veil in some schools, universities, and government offices. Christian women experience verbal harassment and written messages on the walls saying that unveiled women are infidels. They are threatened to be expelled from the university or work.
- The political system effectively punishes those who do not belong to sectarian parties. Since Christians have not joined the sectarian parties, they find it difficult to find jobs in the government. Such preference to party members leaves Christians and other non-members essentially second-class citizens, exacerbating their situation of unemployment, thus affecting their living conditions.
Consequently, a great number of Christian families emigrated outside Iraq, including to Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Over 50,000 Christian families have left for Syria. A similar number have gone to Jordan, and 6,000 have gone to Lebanon. These numbers are provided by the churches that have relief ministries for Iraqi Christian. Others have gone to the Kurdistan region in the North seeking refuge from the harassment, kidnapping and explosions. Some families sent only their children, but this has affected negatively the elderly, who have been left behind and who suffer from the dispersion of the family and the lack of ability to provide the various requirements of life. It should be mentioned that some radical groups accuse Iraqi Christians of being allies with the US, providing a "justification" to attack them and kill some of them.
- The Christians who migrated northward to Kurdistan have been faced with high rent and a high cost of living, in addition a lack of employment opportunities. This reality has forced many of those who were considering migration northward to hesitate or to abandon this option altogether.
- In certain regions, some Christians wanting to emigrate are faced with the problem of not being able to sell their houses or property because others abstain from buying, expecting that these properties will eventually be their own when the owners leave, forced to sell at low prices.
- Many Christians have emigrated during the past years to Syria and Jordan in search of security. However, the Jordanian authorities have recently refused to accept Iraqis, even those wanting to join their families who are already living there, regardless of whether these Iraqis were women or children.
- Almost all the Christians in neighboring countries (Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon) consider themselves temporary residents. They are awaiting the chance to be resettled in a third country
All the above are problems faced beyond the lack of heath care and necessary medicine, the limited number of doctors due to emigration, and the lack of pure water and of electricity available in Iraq. Such psychological pressures negatively affect the Iraqi Christian's wellbeing, including their relations within their family. The impact has been cases of family disintegration–even to the point of collapse—particularly with the absence of social services.
Most recently, we have heard about attacks against Christians in Mosul, in the northern province of Ninevah. From private sources, it has been determined that it is Kurds who are involved in the killing of Christian in order to displace them to an area known as the Ninevah Valley so it can be made into Christian Canton. The intention is that when the elections take place, they will be asked if they want to be part of an Iraq central government or separate, under the Kurdish Government in the North.
Finally, it worthy of note that due to the reasons mentioned, the number of Iraqi Christians has been dwindling drastically since the year 2003. Many people believe that almost 50% of Christians have left since the US invasion.
The Rev. Dr. Nuhad Tomeh is one of the Middle East Council of Churches' three Associate General Secretaries and Coordinator of the Iraq Relief Program.