Disappearing Christians of Iraq


KATE SEELYE (correspondent): In a church in the Iraqi village of Qaraqosh, a priest prepares for a communal baptism. With a splash of water, he welcomes these infants into the Christian faith.

It’s a challenging time for Iraq’s Christians. Since the 2003 American invasion, the Christian community has been threatened and persecuted. Everyone is a target, including Father Mazen Ishou Mitoka. His church in the city of Mosul has been bombed three times. He himself was kidnapped and held for nine days. But the real horror took place last February when his parents responded to a knock at their Mosul home.

FATHER MAZEN ISHOU MITOKA: My father opened the door and saw three armed people. They entered the house and my brother tried to resist them but he had no weapons. We don’t keep weapons at home.

SEELYE: The intruders asked for an identity card to confirm that the family was Christian. They then shot and killed the priest’s father and two brothers. Father Mazin says the killings make no sense to him.

post01-iraqchristiansMITOKA: Are they political or sectarian? Is this part of some plan to get rid of the Christians? There is always a question mark. Nobody claims the assassinations.

SEELYE: Iraq’s Christians are one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Most belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church. Others are Assyrian, affiliated with the Church of the East, or Syriac Orthodox. While they all speak Arabic, their native tongue is Aramaic, the language of Christ. At the time of Saddam’s overthrow, there were estimated to be up to one million Christians in Iraq. Today their numbers have diminished by more than a third as Christians have fled a wave of violence, unleashed by the US invasion.

Siham and Linda Basheer are widows. Their husbands, a father and son, were killed in 2008. The men were shot within two weeks of each other in Mosul by unidentified gunmen. The widows blame the violence on growing Muslim extremism and intolerance, which they say didn’t exist before the US invasion.

LINDA BASHEER: During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan we sent food and well wishes to the Muslims. Muslims visited Christians, Christians visited Muslims. We all got along. But after the collapse of Saddam, everything changed.

post02-iraqchristiansSEELYE: In the past, they say, Iraq’s Christians were an accepted and integral part of Iraqi society. Their contributions were significant, adds Basile Georges Casmoussa, the Syriac Archbishop of Mosul.

BASILE GEORGES CASMOUSSA: In the 1950s, the dozens of doctors in Mosul were all Christian. Christians opened the first schools, the first publishing house, the first theater, the first hospital.

SEELYE: Most importantly, he adds, Christians were secure and protected under Saddam Hussein’s government, but the arrival of American troops put the community in a difficult position, adds Casmoussa.

CASMOUSSA: The Christians suffered from the advent of the Americans because our Muslim brothers assumed that because they were Christians and we were Christians, we must be allies. So we had to defend ourselves against that.

SEELYE: Christians were not a part of the Iraqi opposition to Saddam, unlike most Kurds and Shia Muslims. But once he was overthrown, many Christians took jobs with the American army. As law and order dissolved in the new Iraq, extremists filled the void. They accused Christians of being traitors, attacking their churches and businesses, and demanded that they convert to Islam. Without a militia to protect them, Iraq’s Christian community started to flee.

Some came here, to this largely Christian village of Qaraqosh, where security is tight. Qaraqosh is located in the Nineveh Plains, just north of Mosul in the northern part of Iraq.

Because it’s so secure, Qaraqosh has largely been spared the violence plaguing big cities like Mosul and Baghdad. Since 2005, nearly ten thousand Christians have fled here. This hastily erected compound houses hundreds of refugees, like the Basheers, who say they are just scraping by.

post03-iraqchristiansBASHEER: The government has never given us anything but there are a few humanitarian organizations which sometimes give us food, clothes and money.

SEELYE: But the vast majority of Christians refugees have fled Iraq altogether and are living in neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria.

Christian leaders here are now debating how to keep the remaining members of their community from leaving. Some hope a new election law giving Christians a minimum of five seats in Iraq’s parliament will increase their influence. Other leaders have been talking about establishing a so-called “safe zone” for Christians in the Nineveh Plains. But Lois Marcos, a local council member in Qaraqosh, says it’s a bad idea.

LOIS MARCOS: An autonomous zone would be a risky solution for the Christians because many other groups oppose it and if the Christians bring this issue up again there will be more threats and killings and migrations.

SEELYE: Instead, Marcos says, he would welcome U.S and foreign aid to create jobs here, as well as to establish local police units, manned by Christians. He says better local security is critical, especially given a growing dispute in the Nineveh Plains between Arabs and Kurds, a separate ethnic group.

Marcos says the Kurds, who run a semi-autonomous region to the north, lay claim to parts of Nineveh, even though its under the jurisdiction of Iraq’s central government.

MARCOS: We live in an area that is disputed. We have our brothers the Kurds to the north, and to the south, our brothers the Arabs. In Nineveh, we are stuck in the middle, caught between a rock and a hard place.

post04-iraqchristiansSEELYE: Mayor Bassem Bello is from another Christian village in the Nineveh Plains. He says the American army has served as a buffer between feuding Arab and Kurdish forces, but now, he fears, Christians will suffer even more after US forces start to leave Iraq at the end of the summer.

BASSEM BELLO: There is an Arab-Kurd conflict that exists in Iraq, nobody admits it. We minorities will be the victims of this conflict and this area will be a war zone.

SEELYE: Lawyer Hani Andrews says given all the pressures his community faces, Christians see no future for themselves in Iraq.

HANI ANDREWS: Every Assyrian Christian single man or woman wants to leave the country, if they get this chance, yes in general. If now, for example, if the United States administration declares that we are ready to give visas, U.S. visas to go to the United States for Christians in Iraq, I think at least 80 percent of what we have left of our population will leave the country to the United States.

SEELYE: And what will that mean for the Christian community?

ANDREWS: We are persecuted. We are, we have been killed every day.

SEELYE: But what will that mean for the numbers of Christians in Iraq? Will there be any Christians left?

ANDERWS: No, of course. The population is rapidly decreasing. Most of them want to flee.

SEELYE: Hani adds that the disappearance of Iraq’s Christians would not be unprecedented. He points to neighboring Turkey, where a once flourishing Christian community is now virtually nonexistent. He says Christians in places like Egypt and Palestine are also leaving due to political pressures.

ANDREWS: If these superpowers will stay ignoring what happening in the Middle East, I think maybe in the next 50 or 70 years the Middle East will be empty from Christianity.

SEELYE: For Iraq’s Christian community, which traces its roots as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, it’s a bitter prospect. But the only real guarantee for its safety is a secure, stable, and democratic Iraq. With Baghdad’s politicians still fighting over forming a new government and American troops soon scheduled to leave, a stable Iraq seems to many Christians like a dream.

For Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, I’m Kate Seelye in Iraq.

  • C J Bob Sicard

    Watched your R&E program Sunday 25 July, “Disappearing Christians of Iraq”. You alleged the attacks to
    extremists. Are you that “sucked up” to obama that you forgot a modifier? Try: Islamist or Muslim! The people
    say it, why can’t you? What religion currently is intent on destroying all those who don’t believe what they do?
    Certainly that must have been covered in Divinity School?

  • Mary

    Ms Kate Seelye,

    First let me make it clear that I have read the note at the bottom of this comments page regarding which comments are allowed to appear. I am not surprised at all because nothing close to the truth ever comes out in the media and journalism which is supposed to tell the truth has become the slave of lobbiests and influential people. Whether you publish my comment or not, to me it remains that you shall read it and it shall be on your conscience.

    I do not know where you got your information from or how you deduced that all Christians in Iraq speak Arabic, that is false and if the chaldean catholic church denomination speak arabic and only use Assyrian (erroneously known as Aramaic or neo-aramaic or syriac) in the liturgical service and very scarcely, that does not mean that all Assyrian Christians whether in Iraq or outside Iraq do that. The Church of The East for the Assyrians officially titled The Holy Apostolic Catholic (meaning Universal) Assyrian Church of The East is the only Church that did not change its liturgical language and its followers who are ethnic nationalist Assyrians still speak their ancient language at home, and to a lesser extent do some of the Syrian (syriac orthodox) church followers.

    No thanks to the United States and its allies as well as some weak, un reliable politicians who are just an added number to the Assyrians while they do not work for the Assyrian Cause, the Assyrians were stripped of their last piece of land the Heartland of Assyria (North of Iraq) and they can not do any thing about it because they are being betrayed once again by those from inside and the international community just like they did in the 19th century, then again in 1915 when they were left to be massacred by the kurds and the ottomans and again in 1933 in the Assyrian village of Simeleh in the north of Iraq as British warplanes took pictures of the massacre which was instigated again by them and again implemented by kurdish tribes and the arab army lead by Bakir Sidqui a kurd who was in the army, then in 1969 in the Assyrian village of Soriya whereby the previous regime of Saddam Hussein punished the village because of the kurds who were attacking the army using the village to hide. In 2003 the US and its allies took over the role of persecuting the Assyrian Christians with all their denominations but this time at the hands of all the fanatics be them islamo-arabs or islamo-kurds and since them the Assyrian Christians who have fled their homeland leaving every thing behind has surpassed all the years of the former regime when the Assyrians used to flee Iraq. The Assyrians have gained nothing following this disastrous invasion which was supposed to bring democracy to the country but its real motive was to control the oil, the area and obliterate the existence of its indigenous inhabitants the Assyrians.

    Un fortunately, the Assyrian legitimate rights are being ignored and marginalized as they are being slaughtered slowly and forced to flee by the fanatic arabs and kurds, but as usual you as one of the foreign media just like the local and regional ones do not know any thing and when you report something you just take one part and leave others. The Assyrian Cause is far greater than obliterating Christians from a country, they are obliterating an indigenous people who are the legitimate owners of that land and no one is hearing their cries and here you the foreign media come and put few silly words here and there, then you interview some people who are scared to death to tell the truth so they keep it within the religious context.

    I have yet to see one honest foreign media which would really go in depth and shed a true light on the suffering and oppression of the Assyrians (all denominations) in Iraq, you just follow the propaganda which is being fed to you that they are living in good conditions and whatever other lies are being told, and those weak so-called Assyrian politicians who careless for the Assyrian Cause accepted to be called Christians because they are in contempt with the other factions who are working on erasing the Assyrian indigenous roots and existence in order to create a place for some tribes who came with the invaders from the Iranian and Caucas mountains.

  • Channah

    There are so many factions in Iraq-Sunnis against Shias and both against Kurds. Christians are left out of the equasion. I see Iraq as a Muslim nation and feel the Christans should leave. I am neither Christian nor Muslim and I feel I can look at the issue objectively. I just do not feel the Christians should stay. I do not know why they would want to stay under the conditions they face. Islam is the faith of Iraq, and it should stay that way.

  • Elmer Abbo

    To Channah,

    The Assyrians, including the Chaldean and Syriac populations, are the direct descendants of the ancient Assyrians, a line of continuity in the lands of northern Iraq of thousands of years. They converted to Christianity in the 2nd century AD. Islam overtook Mesopotamia in the 8th century AD. Your logic is ridiculous and insulting. Assyrians have no expectation to change history and they will always remain a small minority in Iraq, but for them to be forced to leave under persecution should not be condoned.

  • michelle

    To Channah,
    There have been Christians living in what is now called Iraq since Christianity began in the first century. No religion or it’s adherents is perfect, and there are sins on all sides. Tolerance of each others qualities and differences is crucial to learning to live in peace. We should NOT have to have a dictator to mutually hate, in order to get along.

  • Roberto

    The title of this selection is “Disappearing Christians of Iraq”. However, the majority of the presentation was focused on people who hold a tie to Catholicism, which is a denomination of Christianity. I understand that Catholicism holds the most religious icons within Christianity, but it is still a denomination, not a religion. Historical evidence has shown that Christianity grew out of the beliefs that people held in Christ Jesus, not one particular religion or denomination. The most recent parallel to the first historical church are Protestant denominations such as Pentecostal and Evangelical. Yet in this report, non-of these denominations were even mentioned, nor interviews presented. Additionally, this selection also did not present anything in regards, to the “underground church”, which went “underground” especially because of the persecution that it faced due to their relationship to Christianity. Additionally, none of the forms of persecution that Christians have received were even mentioned as samples of the pressures that they endure daily, often unto death. Having viewed the selection, I perceive the title should have been revised to something such as “The Diminishing Catholic Denomination of the Middle East”. For that is what was presented.

  • Hannah

    This is such a shame. What do you mean by “Iraq’s faith is Muslim, and it should stay that way”? This isnt logical, first of all, because no country has a faith. People within the country do. For example, in Egypt (i’m Egyptian :P), there’s a Muslim majority, and a Christian and Jewish minority. Therefore, Egypt is an Arab country with a population embracing all 3 religions. Btw, i’m a Muslim Egyptian, but i think everyone deserves to stay in the land they were born and raised on, disregarding their faith.
    No one owns the land; it’s shared by everyone, and we are only guests. Only God owns all land on Earth.
    So who are we to decide who stays in a country or who should flee?
    Iraq is for all iraqis. Please stand together and end the sectarian violence. For the sake of Egypt, the Arab world, and the world as a whole. Enough blood has been shed over sectarian conflicts. Build Churches, Sinagaugs, and Mosques.. be proud of your shared history as iraqis.
    Hugee Salute to Great Iraq from Egypt. I hope todays’ iraqis are as great as their history. Don’t erase your history over stupid sectarian conflicts, pleasee.

  • Sherilyn Kamelamela

    Thankful you did not remain silent … God’s word reigns!