(Photo: REUTERS / Ako Rasheed)
SANTA ANA, Calif. – Ongoing violence against Christians in Iraq has produced an accelerated exodus of believers recently and numbering in the hundreds of thousands over the last 10 years, said Open Doors USA officials.
Members of the Orange County, Calif.-based organization that provides help to persecuted believers in Jesus worldwide say that while the world’s attention has shifted to such countries as Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the mass movement of Christians in Iraq continues unabated.
Before the Gulf War in 1991, the number of Christians was about one million, stated Open Doors in a news release. “That number fell to an estimated 850,000 in 2003 at the start of the U.S.-led invasion that ended the Saddam Hussein regime. Since then the numbers have plummeted.
“At the beginning of the summer, Open Doors estimated the number of Christians remaining in Iraq at 345,000. However, the number decreases every month,” officials stated.
“It is an estimation; some even think there are less Christians left in the country than that,” another Open Doors member said.
Bassam Isho, 30, who was killed by unknown gunmen on Oct. 1 is considered a martyr by Christians in Mosul. The gunmen entered the restaurant where Isho worked and opened fire, killing him instantly, according to Open Doors.
During the same week, two more Christians were killed in Kirkuk. It is this type of violence, including the continuing harassment from Muslim extremists that has many Christians in Iraq seeking refuge.
"Iraqi Christians feel that the government fails to give them the security and freedom to worship in peace," Open Doors USA spokesman Jerry Dykstra told The Christian Post. "Countless Christians have been threatened, robbed, raped, kidnapped or killed."
"I think we need to pray that the Christians who have fled the country or live in the Kurdish area can come back home in the near future – with complete freedom of religion," Dykstra said. "We need to keep the pressure on the U.S. government to speak out for minority faith groups in Iraq. Just because the U.S. troops are leaving, does not mean we can ignore the ongoing violence and lack of protection of Christians inside Iraq."
The anniversary of one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community is on Oct. 31, Dykstra said. Last year, 58 people were killed when Islamic extremists assaulted a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad.
“The attacks on Christians continue and the world remains totally silent. It's as if we've been swallowed up by the night,” AsiaNews quotes one anonymous Christian as saying.
Dr. Carl Moeller, Open Doors USA President/CEO, has labeled the attacks against Christians in Iraq as “religicide.”
“Christians in cities like Baghdad and Mosul are gripped by terrorism. They are fleeing in droves. Their families are threatened. Extremists want to eliminate Christians from Iraq,” Moeller said.
Christians are leaving the south and center of the country and attempting to build new lives in the far north, according to Open Doors.
“But today not only are Christians fleeing from the far southern cities of Baghdad and Basra, they also are moving from the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul that not long ago had large Christian communities,” Open Doors officials state. “The Iraqis who leave their cities often flee to the relatively secure and most northern Kurdish part of Iraq. That’s why a vast majority of Iraqi Christians now live in this part of the country. Many of them are now Internally Displaced Persons.”
Open Doors estimates the number of IDP to be at least 186,000.
The number of Christians moving into the Kurdish areas such as Ankawa is growing, but they are also struggling with the effects of displacement. Loss of income, high unemployment, adequate housing, schooling for children, and medical care are some of the problems coming as the result of the exodus into new areas.
“Because many of the Iraqi Christians that have fled Mosul or Baghdad speak Arabic, they often have no access to a Christian community that speaks their language as in the north traditional Chaldean or Assyrian languages are spoken,” said an Open Doors worker who is a specialist on Iraq.
Open Doors helps train Iraqi church leaders, including methods of delivering Bibles and Christian literature to the Christians in the country. The ministry also facilitates the translation of the Bible into Kurdish dialects. Additionally, the group supports Christian refugees with loans and grants to start small businesses, and says it has proven to be an effective tool to encourage them to stay in Iraq.
The ministry is helping refugees with vocational training and the children of the IDP are being supported through trauma counseling.