Some fled after the US-led invasion of Iraq, others during sectarian bloodshed and more following militant attacks. The country’s past two violent decades have hollowed out its Christian community which dates back two millennia.
After first settling in the fertile plains of Nineveh Governorate before heading for the busy boulevards of Baghdad, more than 1 million Christians have in more modern times been uprooted by Iraq’s consecutive conflicts.
“By the age of 24, I had already lived through and survived three wars,” said Sally Fawzi, 38, an Iraqi Chaldean Catholic, who left her country more than a decade ago and is now living in Texas.
Illustration: Lance Liu
Some members of the Christian community escaped to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, others waited in neighboring Jordan to emigrate and resettled in countries as far away as Australia.
Many lost hope in their homeland long ago, but see the visit by Pope Francis — the first-ever papal trip to Iraq scheduled for next month — as an important opportunity for him to use his voice to garner international support for Iraqis of their faith.
Iraq’s Christian community is one of the oldest and most diverse in the world, featuring Chaldean, Armenian Orthodox, Protestant as well as other branches of Christianity.
By 2003, when then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was toppled, there were 1.5 million Christians in a country of 25 million people, or about 6 percent of the population.
However, as Iraq’s population mushroomed, the percentage of the minority shrank.
Today, 400,000 Christians remain in a predominantly Muslim country of 40 million people, Hammurabi Human Rights Organization cofounder William Warda said.
Among those who left, nearly half a million resettled in the US. Others ended up dispersed in Canada, Australia, Norway and other parts of Europe.
Rana Said, 40, had tried her hardest to stay.
Her aunt and uncle were killed in 2007, when US soldiers blindly opened fire on the streets of Mosul after an attack in the regional capital of Nineveh.
Still, she remained in the city with her husband, Ammar al-Kass, 41,who is a veterinarian.
The following year, with Iraq gripped by sectarian bloodletting, a string of assassinations, including of Christians, pushed the family to move to the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.
However, by 2013, the region was growing increasingly unstable.
They left their ancestral Iraq and were resettled on Australia’s Gold Coast where they found jobs in their respective professions and have raised three daughters: Sara, 10, Liza, 6, and three-year-old Rose.
The young girls have never visited Iraq, although they speak Arabic and a modern dialect of Assyrian — the ancient language of Jesus — at home.
A year after they resettled, Islamic State (IS) militants swept through their city. The family watched in horror from halfway around the world.
“The fall of Mosul wasn’t easy for us,” particularly the destruction of the city’s 1,200-year-old Church of the Virgin Mary, Ammar said.
“That’s where my father was married. It was razed and obliterated to the ground,” he said.
Ammar tried to keep his wife — pregnant with Liza at the time — away from computers and telephones, afraid that the added stress would harm the baby.
“I used to have nightmares about IS entering, and killing and raping my family. It was a repetitive, horrible dream,” Rana said emotionally, referring to the militants who forced women of the Yazidi and other minorities into sexual slavery.
Saad Hormuz lived the IS nightmare in person.
On August 6, 2014, IS fighters swept into Bartalla, the diverse town on the edge of Mosul where Hormuz had worked as a taxi driver.
“First, we fled towards Al-Qosh,” another Christian town further north, he said.
As the militants kept up their pillaging of Nineveh, they escaped to Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.
With his wife, Afnan, 48, and their four children — Natalie, 7, Nores, 15, Franz, 16, and Fadi, 19 — he lived in a church for a month before renting an apartment at US$150 per month for nearly three years. That severely strained their finances.
Three years later, the Iraqi military said it had freed Bartalla from the IS’ grip. The Hormuz family was elated and rushed back to resume life in their hometown.
However, they found that their home had been torched and ransacked, and that members of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a powerful state-sponsored paramilitary network formed from predominantly Shiite armed groups and volunteers to fight the IS, now controlled Bartalla.
“We lived in fear. There were checkpoints and militias everywhere. Once, they even asked my wife to wear a veil,” Saad Hormuz said. “So I decided to sell everything, even my car, and move to Jordan.”
They have lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Amman since February 2018, hoping to be resettled permanently in Canada, where he and his wife have family connections.
With the COVID-19 pandemic slowing down international travel, the immigration process has been indefinitely frozen as their savings dwindle further.
Registered as a refugees in Jordan, Saad and Afnan Hormuz do not have the right to work legally and rely on soup kitchens at Amman’s few churches to keep their family fed.
“I hope that through his visit to Iraq, the pope will ask countries receiving Christian refugees to help us,” Saad Hormuz said. “Going back to Iraq is out of the question.”
Many in Chaldean Bishop Saad Sirop Hanna’s parishes in Sweden feel the same way.
Born in Baghdad, Hanna, 40, was in 2017 sent to lead Europe’s largest Chaldean congregation of about 25,000 people, who had arrived in Sweden in waves over the past four decades.
He lived through much of the violence they had fled, describing it as “great chaos.”
In 2006, Hanna was kidnapped after presiding over mass in the Iraqi capital.
“I was held and went through lots of experiences — including torture and isolation,” Hanna said.
“This experience also gave me strength, truth be told. I was born again. I look at life again with a great blessing and a great love,” he said.
There are more than 140,000 Iraqi-born residents in Sweden, including Raghid Benna, a native of Mosul who in 2007 resettled in the eastern town of Sodertalje.
“There are so many Chaldeans here that I don’t even feel like I’m in exile,” said Benna, a father of two.
For Fawzi, memories of home can be painful.
“My family was devastated in 2007 when we learned that my two great aunts in Kirkuk had been stabbed to death at night in their home just because they were Christians,” she said.
“Today, I have a house, a beautiful family of my own, a job and my immediate family live in the same city, but I miss my Baghdad house and friends the most,” Fawzi said. “It will never be the same.”
As young families escape Iraq, they often leave their older relatives behind, Warda said.
“A Christian family was typically five members. Now it’s down to three,” he said.
In Baghdad, the once-thriving community of 750,000 Christians has shrunk by 90 percent.
Among them is Younan al-Farid, a priest who has stayed in the capital even after his brother emigrated to Canada and his sister to the US.
With fewer worshipers, “up to 30 percent of Iraq’s churches closed,” al-Farid said.
AFTER THE IS
After nearly two decades of bloodshed and bombings, Iraq entered a period of relative calm following the IS’ territorial defeat in late 2017.
However, that has not stopped the flight of minorities.
“People are still leaving. Christians are just trying to save up enough money, and then as soon as they can, they emigrate,” al-Farid said.
The country’s parlous economy is the main driver of emigration now, Christians across the country say.
The pandemic triggered a worldwide recession, and Iraq faced the additional challenge of collapsing oil prices, which slashed state revenue from crude sales.
That has led to delays or cuts in public-sector salaries.
“I only receive one salary every two months, and sometimes not even the full salary,” said Haval Emmanuel, a Chaldean government worker originally from northern Iraq. “As soon as I get paid, I have to pay debts from the preceding weeks and then I have nothing left.”
Emmanuel grew up in Iraq’s southernmost city of Basra, then married and lived in Baghdad until 2004, when a bomb detonated outside the school his children attended.
Now grown, one of his daughters has emigrated to Norway with her husband, and his brother and sister have moved their families to Lebanon.
Emmanuel, his wife and their three other children are eking out a living in Arbil as they await a response for their resettlement requests.
“We’re suffocating. There’s no social care, no health services, no public schools, no work,” he said at his modest home near the city’s Chaldean archdiocese.
It irked him to see the lack of public services in oil-rich Basra, piles of trash disfiguring Baghdad’s historic Rasheed Street, or posters of late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in squares and streets in southern Iraq.
“It’s supposed to be a public place, but it makes me feel like I have no place here,” Emmanuel said. “If they open everything up, I guarantee that by tomorrow, there won’t be any Christians left. At least abroad, we will finally feel respected as humans.”
The economic downturn, the poor quality of life, the shrinking space for minorities — Emmanuel blamed it all on an entrenched political class seen as deeply corrupt.
There is little the pope can do to change that, he said.
“The pope is like an angel coming down on Iraq, but how many demons will he find here? A man of peace visiting a group of warlords — how could he change them?” he said.
Emmanuel, whose daughter sings in the choir that is to welcome Francis when he arrives in Arbil, broke into a bitter smile.
“We’re expecting the pope, but we’re not expecting much from his visit,” he said.
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