Christianity Faces Extinction in Iraq Within Five Years: Report

Christianity could be extinct in Iraq within five years, according to a new report backed by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron.

The report, which looks at the persecution of Christian groups around the world and was compiled by U.K. charity Aid to the Church in Need, was presented to the House of Lords on Tuesday. In comments reported by the Catholic Herald, Cameron backed the report and deplored the fact that "Christians are systematically discriminated against, exploited and even driven from their homes" every day in some countries.

The report highlights the plight of Christians in Iraq, where political instability since the 2003 war and persecution by ISIS has reduced the population to around 260,000, from a peak of about 1.4 million during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It references an exodus from Iraq of Christians fearing ethnic-cleansing and potential genocide and warns that "Christianity is on course to disappear from Iraq within possibly five years – unless emergency help is provided on a massively increased scale at an international level." 

In June 2014, ISIS took control of Iraq's second city of Mosul, and members of the city's Christian population were told to convert, pay a special tax or be put to death, according to the report. Thousands fled to the Nineveh Plains in northern Iraq, but ISIS overran the area in August last year and forced around 125,000 Christians to flee.

Some 100,000 Christians reportedly sought refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northwest Iraq that is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, with many living in tents in Christian suburbs.

Aziz Emmanuel al-Zebari, a Chaldean Catholic and professor at Salahaddin University in Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, says that persecution from ISIS is not the only reason many of his fellow Christians are leaving the country.

Al-Zebari tells Newsweek: "To be a Christian in Iraq, you have no future. There is no security...The economic situation, with no salaries, no job opportunities, no educational opportunities, people are just waiting for nothing so they decide to leave the country."

Iraqi Christians have looked abroad for assistance in their plight. Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Irbil, addressed the House of Lords in February and pleaded for the U.K. to send troops to Iraq to prevent the Christian population from being wiped out. The U.K. is presently conducting air strikes in Iraq as part of a U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, but has not committed any ground troops to the operation.

A 4,000-strong Christian militia called the Nineveh Plains Protection Units was formed in Iraq earlier this year in a bid to protect the communities from further destruction at the hands of ISIS.

Al-Zebari says the urgent priority must be the establishment of a safe haven for Christians displaced from the Nineveh Plains, while he also raises concerns that ISIS sleeper cells could strike Christians in Kurdistan at any time.

"There are 500 members of ISIS who come from Kurdistan," Al-Zabari says. "They are Kurdish people and they have joined ISIS, which means that there are sleeping cells here inside the province and once they have an opportunity, they would create havoc here."

Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Catholic priest assisting Christians displaced from Mosul and the Nineveh Plains at the Mar Elias Church in Ainkawa, says that Christians have been persecuted in Iraq for many years and are losing their sense of belonging to the country.

"I'm in love with my country, I'm in love with my church there but believe me, my country is not proud [that] I am part of it," Bazi says.

Hundreds of Christian refugee families are living in cramped conditions in caravans around Bazi's church. Bazi himself was kidnapped by Islamist militia in 2006 and suffered a broken back at the hands of his captors.

Christianity is traditionally believed to have come to Iraq through two of the 12 apostles of Jesus. The main communities are Chaldeans—an eastern Catholic church independent of Rome but that recognizes the pope's authority—and Assyrians.

According to al-Zebari, the extinction of Christianity in Iraq would have a dramatic impact on the country's wider society.

"For Christianity to disappear from the Middle East and Iraq would be the end of enlightenment and tolerance and democratic values and human values, because although we are a minority we have left our fingerprint in every aspect of life here," al-Zebari says.