BAGHDAD -- Representatives of Iraq's embattled Christian community are concerned that an ongoing exodus of Christians may result in the disappearance of one of the country's oldest religious communities, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reports.
Abdullah al-Nawfali, who heads the Christian endowments fund, says there has been a sharp increase in the number of Christians leaving Iraq since the October 31 suicide attack on the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad.
More than 50 Christians, including two priests, and seven policemen were killed when Iraqi security forces stormed the Baghdad church in which Islamic terrorists wearing explosive vests were holding worshippers hostage.
Nawfali says the number of Christians emigrating from Iraq in November -- immediately after the church siege – more than doubled from the previous month, and the rate of increase in December was even higher.
He says these statistics suggest that Iraq is in danger of losing its Christian community, which has lived for centuries alongside Muslims and other ethnic and religious groups.
No One Knows How Many
Nawfali explains that no one seems to have precise figures of the number of Christians leaving Iraq. He says the Christian endowments fund based its estimates on the number of education certificates submitted to his office for a stamp of authenticity by Christians who want to emigrate.
Before the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, there were about 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. More than half are believed to have left since then.
Lewis Bandar, a member of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council bloc in the Iraqi parliament, says there are several reasons why Christians are leaving. In addition to Islamic extremists, he names human traffickers and some European countries that offer incentives for Christians to immigrate.
Bandar says Christians in the Kurdish region live in a safer environment than those living in other parts of Iraq, but the feeling of uncertainty and the sense that their entire community is being targeted still make them feel uncomfortable.
He adds that addressing the security problem would contribute to restoring a feeling of normality among the Christian community.
Father Isaia Timathius, the parish priest of a church in the Dora district south of Baghdad, says that pledges by top officials to provide better protection for Iraq's Christians have thus far failed to reassure them, as evidenced by their continued emigration.