Iraq In Transition

Iraqi Christians: a fight for survival

  • 2020-03-22
Iraqi Christians: a fight for survival
Duhok, Christians are celebrating a ceremony, 2019. Photo: Ammar Aziz
Ammar Aziz

Perhaps, they are the most peaceful ethnic components in Iraq, taking the least part in the country’s administrative, political, and security conflicts; however, they have become the victims eventually.

Iraqi Christians are about to entirely lose their territories, including their ancient hometowns. Not only their language and cultures have gradually been erased, but also their population number has also declined.

In the 1990s, Christians were a million and 500 thousand people, approximately three percent of the Iraqi population. The number dropped to around 800 thousand Christians before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. It has further declined to 200-300 thousand in 2017, according to statistics published by the United Nations.

“Nineveh Plain is the ancient homeland of the Christians, but war and violence have forced people to undoubtedly abandon their homeland because the lives of humans are the more important than anything else,” Klara Elya said.

Klara and her family used to live in the Batawin neighborhood in Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, but has moved to Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region, for years due to the armed groups, including the Islamic State group (IS).

When IS took over Mosul in Mid-2014, the group offered the Christians three choices; conversion to Islam, Paying Jizyah [Islamic tax], or leaving the area. Most of them chose the third choice and became displaced.

Klara claimed, “only in Batawin there were five thousand Christians, but 90 percent of them have either immigrated abroad or moved to the other provinces.”

Iraqi Christian mostly lived in Baghdad, Nineveh, Kirkuk, Duhok, and Erbil, with a small number in the other provinces.

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Kirkuk, a Christian woman attends a religious ritual in one of the city’s churches, 2019. Photo: KirkukNow 

“Now if I pay a visit to Baghdad, I have to stay at a hotel because none of my relatives lives there, the situation has changed. It has become like hell for the Christians, and our people wait for an opportunity to immigrate.”

Besides losing their hometown, Klara is also concerned about their languages as most of them speak and study in Arabic, not in their Syriac language.

Christianity is the second-largest religion in Iraq, and all Iraqis, including Christians, based on article 4 of the constitution, have the right to educate their children in their mother tongue.

Imad Faraj, the priest of A’ela Muqadasa church in Kirkuk, said, “the constitution mentions the protection of the Christians culture, and it was preserved to a certain degree, but Daesh changed everything, our language and culture entered a new dangerous phase. Serious work should be done not to let them vanish.”

According to the statistic of the administration of the churches in Kirkuk, there are 12 churches in the city, and at least seven car explosions have targeted them since 2003. Now, the church bell is rung only at one of the 12 churches.

“In Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Region, attention has been given to Christian culture, studying in Syriac language exists, but in the middle and south of Iraq, Christians need a significant attention,” Faraj said.

Either the churches and the ritual places of the Christians have been subjected to violence, or they have been closed.

Um-Bashara Saliha church was opened in 2019  in Baqubah, Diyala Province, after 13 years of closure, when it was targeted by Al-Qaeda in 2006.

In Khanaqin district, Diyala province, there is one church in which Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) live, and Christians of the district visit different areas in the Kurdistan Region to participate in their religious ceremonies.

In Nineveh ad Baghdad, majority of the churches stopped ringing the bell, as a result of years of argmed groups’ conflict and violence.

85 churches were significantly damaged in the Nineveh during the IS war, 43 of them are located in Nineveh plain, the ancient homeland of the Christians. Least churches have been reconstructed among the damaged ones, according to the statistics of the directorate of Chaldean churches in Nineveh and the directorate of Christian affairs of the Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Rubya Awimlak Aziz, a Christian member in the Kurdistan Region’s Parliament, stated, “we became the victim of the Iraqi political system. The preservation of the rights of the ethnic and religious components has been mentioned in the iraqi constitution, but it has not been practically implemented. People are disillusioned and are disappointed in Iraq, so they see immigration as the solution.

Central and regional government statistics show that tens of Christian families have not been able to return to their places of origin and still live in displacement. Besides that, thousands of families- only in Nineveh 24 thousand families- have moved abroad.

Among 787,705 individual IDPs in the Kurdistan Region, 7 percent of them are Christians. Also, at the hand of IS, more than 60 Christian women and children have disappeared.

“The attention given to the Christian language and culture is not at the level of our demand. Before Daesh, there were 240 Syriac schools, but it has decreased to 187,” the Christian parliament member said.

As the Christians are fighting for preserving their language and culture, they are also under the threat of demographic change, particularly in the Nineveh plain.

In recent years, the Christians refused a housing project in Bartila sub-district, 15 km western Nineveh, that was supposed to be sold to people who were not Christians. They also opposed the transport of the civil status records of the Arab families who were settled in the Ninveh plain by the former Baathist regime of Iraq.

“The hometowns of the Christians in Iraq have been Nineveh plain, especially Tel Kef, Alqosh, Tels Kof, Qaraqosh, and Christian still inhabit such areas, but they leave the areas during conflicts because they do not like conflict and war,” Nawzad Puls, head of Suraya Organization for Culture and Media said.

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Nineveh Plain, Alqosh, the hometown of the Iraqi Christians, 2019. Photo: Ammar Aziz 

Puls thinks that the main reason for the decay of Christina in Iraq is the way the country is administrated, primarily because of Islamic implementation in governance since 2003. “Christian cannot live in the middle and south of Iraq due to that rule.”

According to article two of the Iraqi constitution, Islam is the official religion of the state, and there cannot be any law that contradicts with provisions of Islam, but the constitution also “guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.”

“Christian’s culture and language are not preserved, tens of ritual ceremonies are no longer practiced, and this is not the case in the entire areas. In Kirkuk and the Kurdistan Region, the situation is different, their culture and religious ceremonies are respected,” he added.

They also occupy the least government positions, even in Nineveh, such as two district commissioners, one subdistrict commissioner, and two general directors.

For the Iraqi council of Representatives, they have quota seats in Baghdad, Nineveh, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Duhok. In the elections, tens of candidates compete to secure the seats allocated to Christians. In the Kurdistan Region Parliament, they have five quota seats, besides their seats in the provincial councils.

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Diyala, Bashara Church in Khanaqin that houses IDPs for years, 2017. Photo: KirkukNow 

“All the Iraqi regimes have oppressed Christians and violated their rights, and recently Daesh wanted to eradicate them. That is why they are divided over different areas,” said Wahid Yaqo Hrmiz, a former Christian parliament member.

“Christians have not lived in peace. They have lived in fears and frustrations; it is a long history of majoritarian rule and opposition of Christians, they have and will live this way,” he said.

Hrmiz thinks that the only remedy for the Iraqi Christians to survive is to have a civic and democratic government so that the country will be a homeland for everyone.

Iraqi Christians are facing an unequal competition, which has significantly dropped their number in the county. Their areas are part of the disputed territories between the federal and the central government, which, based on article 140 of the constitution, has to be solved through normalization, organizing census, and later holding a referendum to determine the fate of the areas.

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