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Christians in Iraq

Reported estimates from Christian leaders of the Christian population in 2003 ranged from 800,000 to 1.4 million. By 2009 population estimates by Christian leaders ranged from 500,000 to 600,000. Approximately two-thirds of Christians are Chaldeans (a Nestorian uniate eastern rite of the Catholic Church), nearly one-fifth are Assyrians (Nestorian Church of the East), and the remainder are Syriacs (Eastern Orthodox), Armenians (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), Anglicans, and other Protestants. Most Assyrian Christians are in the north, and most Syriac Christians are split between Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Ninewa Province.

Christian leaders estimate that as much as 50 percent of the country's Christian population lives in Baghdad, and 30 to 40 percent lives in the north, with the largest Christian communities located in and around Mosul, Erbil, Dohuk, and Kirkuk. The Archbishop of the Armenian Orthodox Diocese reported that 15,000 to 16,000 Armenian Christians remained in the country, primarily in the cities of Baghdad, Basrah, Kirkuk, and Mosul. Evangelical Christians reportedly number between 5,000 and 6,000. They can be found in the northern part of the country, as well as in Baghdad, with a very small number residing in Basrah.

The Armenian Orthodox Church of Iraq worked with government officials to regain properties the former regime forced it to sell. Although the Church was paid fair market value for properties in Mosul, Basrah, Kirkuk, Baghdad, and Dohuk, it had been forced to sell the properties under pressure. Previous efforts to regain properties did not succeed, but church officials stated that the government rulings in these property claim cases are being appealed.

Assyrians and Chaldeans are considered by many to be distinct ethnic groups, as well as the descendants of some of the earliest Christian communities. The communities speak a distinct language (Syriac). Although they do not define themselves as Arabs, the Baath Government defines Assyrians and Chaldeans as such, evidently to encourage them to identify with the Sunni-Arab dominated regime. Christians are concentrated in the north and in Baghdad. Both contemporary Assyrians and Chaldeans claim to be heirs of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, including the ancient Babylonian, Assyrian, and Chaldean empires. Contemporary Assyrians often refer to Assyrians and Chaldeans as belonging to the same ethno-national group, while Chaldeans often include Assyrians in their ethnic group. Assyrians sometimes identify themselves interchangeably as "Assyrian" or "Chaldean." Christianity is an important facet of identity among contemporary Assyrians. Assyrians and Chaldeans both trace their religious identities to the beginning of the Christian era. Syriac is a language closely-related to the Aramaic spoken by ancient Mesopotamian peoples, including Jesus. These historical facts strengthen the Assyrian identification with the ancient Assyrian and Chaldean civilizations, and with the early Christian church.

Christian leaders inside and outside the country reported that members of their communities received threatening letters demanding that Christians leave or be killed. In October 2008, for example, a group calling itself the Ansar al-Islam Battalions sent a letter to leading Christian leaders in the country warning them that all Christians should leave the country immediately or face death.

Shopkeepers were targeted for providing goods or services considered to be inconsistent with Islam, and sometimes were subjected to violence for failing to comply with warnings to stop such activity. Liquor store owners, primarily Christians and Yezidis, were especially targeted. On April 20, 2009, the Governor of Karbala, Amal al-Din al-Hir, stated that he would "take strong measures against liquor stores" because "they violate the sanctity of the city," although no official liquor stores were known to exist in the province.

During a 10-day period in the beginning of October 2008, 14 Christians were killed in Mosul, prompting more than 2,000 families to flee their homes for villages in the Ninewa Plain north of the city. The attacks followed protests in which hundreds of Christians demonstrated for greater representation on the country's local provincial councils. Leaflets were distributed in predominantly Christian neighborhoods threatening families to convert to Islam, pay the "jizyah" tax, leave the city, or be killed. Gunmen then set up checkpoints in several parts of the city, stopping vehicles in search of residents who could be identified as Christians. Local security forces did little to stop the killings, but Prime Minister Maliki sent two additional brigades of police to reassert control of the city. During the last months of 2008, the majority of Christian families who had fled returned to Mosul. A government investigation into the killings had not been made public by the end of 2008.

In response to the killing of Christians in Mosul in October 2008, prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr sent representatives from Najaf to Baghdad to meet with church leaders and express solidarity. One of the representatives, Sheikh Muhanned al-Gharrawi, conveyed a message from Sadr that "we will not hesitate to turn into human shields for our Christian brothers."

On April 15, 2009, Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi stated that "the position of Iraqi Christians is vulnerable and Iraq must not be left alone to face this. It's a collective task.Christians are an integral part of Iraq. We need to help Iraq and help Christians remain in Iraq."

On July 22, 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki made a statement to the media in support of the Christians in Iraq: "The Christian brothers in Iraq were exposed to discrimination. We stress that we do not discriminate between one Iraqi and another at all, between one Muslim and another, between a Christian and a Muslim, or between one ethnic group and another. In fact, we are proud of them and we need all of them. We are ready to provide them with special privileges in order to be in Iraq, especially since they are a part of the beautiful Iraqi mosaic of which we are proud. We will spare no effort to secure their return to Iraq, which is the homeland of their fathers and grandfathers. There is no discrimination at all and we will not tolerate this issue."

On July 25, 2008, Prime Minister Maliki met with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican. The two discussed the security situation in Iraq, including the situation facing Iraqi Christians, and the need for dialogue and collaboration among all ethnic and religious groups, including minorities.

The Nineveh Plain Administrative Unit proposal, first put forward in 2003, would establish a region in northern Iraq where the country's Christians could return, resettle and rebuild their lives. According to Michael Youash, project director for the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, a Washington-based think tank that has lobbied hard for U.S. support of the Nineveh Plain Administrative Unit, the Nineveh Plain is not an independent state "or some sort of Iraqi-Christian reservation." "Rather," Youash said, "this initiative would constitutionally define an area in northern Iraq where Christians and other minorities could elect local councils to deal with matters such as education, public works, health care and security." This would be a region of some 5,000 square kilometers (approximately 3,107 miles), with a population of nearly one-half million people

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:50:15 ZULU