Figures on the prewar size of the Christian community vary, with estimates ranging between 800,000 and 1.2 million. Today, estimates on the remaining number of Christians in Iraq put the community at between 500,000 and 700,000.
Unlike other groups in Iraq, Christians do not have militias or tribes to protect them. In their absence, they have relied on coalition and Iraqi forces for protection, and say they have been let down. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to increase protection for the Christian community following the March killing of Mosul Archbishop Bulus Faraj Rahhu, but it does not appear that he has followed through on his pledge.
The first major attack against the Christian community in Iraq came in August 2004 when five Baghdad churches were bombed over a 30-minute period. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) appeared to be responsible for the bombings, and for the majority of attacks that have since targeted the Christian community. The first bombings came in response to an influx of foreign Christian missionary groups following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. Christians said the proselytizing of foreign missionaries to Muslims was seen as an arm of the U.S. occupation, and the indigenous Christian community was made to pay for the foreigners' actions.
ISI's main goal is to establish an Islamic state on the ground in Iraq that adheres to strict Islamic law. Christians who have fled Iraq report being pressured by Muslim insurgents, both Sunni and Shi'ite, to convert to Islam or leave Iraq. As ISI grew in strength, it increased its campaign against Christians, hanging posters in Baghdad's Christian neighborhoods demanding Christian women veil their faces. Locals reported in June 2007 that nearly 200 Christian families had fled Baghdad's Al-Durah neighborhood with just the clothes on their backs.
The other main perpetrator of violence against Christians in recent years has been the Shi'ite militia led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The Al-Mahdi Army waged a brutal campaign against the Christian community in Baghdad and Al-Basrah beginning in 2004, driving people from their homes, bombing Christian-owned liquor stores and hair salons, and imposing jizya, an Islamic protection tax on those wishing to stay in their homes. In May 2007, the militia ordered Christian women in Baghdad to veil or face grave consequences.
Dozens of churches across the country have since been bombed, and hundreds of Christians killed. Moreover, campaigns of kidnapping for ransom targeting Christians became a main tool of intimidation by insurgents. Those who have not fled Iraq entirely are internally displaced, with the majority living inside the northern Kurdistan region. Observers say those who remain in the south may be forced to worship underground if they are to survive. In Al-Basrah, which had a vibrant Christian community before the war, some say the community has fled altogether.
The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reported in May 2007 that families in Al-Durah were told their property now belonged to ISI. One resident of Al-Durah told AINA in a March 2007 e-mail: "This has been going on for the past week, and it started even before Easter. We talked to many people within the American Embassy and Iraqi government, but it seems nobody really cares, because they have done nothing, or sometimes I wonder if they care at all. Neither the Iraqi nor the U.S. Army have any activity there, and they have delivered Durah to insurgents; and above all the U.S. Army went and put a camp in the Chaldean church [the Pontifical Babil College for Philosophy and Theology] to raise the hate among those Muslims toward Christians, as they are seeing them as allies for Americans, and that worsens things more."
As RFE/RL reported last year, Saudi gunmen holed up in Al-Durah demanded that each Christian pay 50,000 dinars ($40) in jizya to the mujahedin as the price for maintaining their religion, while ISI demanded Christians pay 250,000 dinars (about $200, the average monthly salary) to stay in their homes. Those who fled Al-Durah had to pay "exit" fees of $200 per person or $400 per car.
Europe May Offer Temporary Asylum
French and German officials have taken up the case of Christian refugees in recent weeks, saying they will push for their countries to give preference to Christians over other refugees fleeing Iraq, citing the bond of common faith.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner confirmed last month that France will give refuge to nearly 500 Iraqi Chaldean Christians. The Chaldean church is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and recognizes the authority of the pope. Kouchner said on March 19 that he hoped the Iraqis would be in France within weeks. Mar Emmanuel III Delly, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church, told "Le Figaro" that visas for Christians were not a solution, the French daily reported on April 14. "What is needed is to work for peace in Iraq, rather than providing places for Christians so that they can go begging in Europe," Delly said.
German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble pledged last week that his country may take up to 30,000 Christian refugees from Iraq. Schaeuble reportedly justified the focus on Christian refugees by saying Europe should accept those who were culturally closest to it. Schaeuble is offering temporary asylum, saying that those given shelter should return home once ethnic and sectarian tensions die down.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the advocacy group One Free World International has called on the government to make special provisions for taking in Christian refugees. Canada will reportedly admit some 2,000 Iraqi refugees this year, but has no specific provision in its quota for Christians. Nor does the United States, which says it will admit 12,000 Iraqi refugees by September 30. As of March 31, 2,627 Iraqis have arrived in the United States, according to State Department figures.
This week, members of the U.S. House of Representatives inaugurated the House Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East. Iraqi religious minorities were on hand for the event, saying they would work to raise awareness in Congress to the violence and social displacement of minorities from once-integrated Iraqi cities.
It is debatable whether giving special preference to any group is a prudent policy. While there is no doubt that steps should be taken to preserve Iraq's Christian community, whose presence in Iraq predates the appearance of Islam, visas to far-flung countries may not be the best way to do it. Indeed, the decision by some countries to give preference to Iraqi Christians may backfire, and those Christians who remain in Iraq could become even more vulnerable to attack by insurgents than before.