What future for Iraq's last Christians?
Iraq's most senior Catholic leader has said that security is urgently needed to stem the tide of Christians continuing to flee the country.
Assessing the situation for Christians in Iraq, Patriarch Raphael I Sako of the Chaldean Church told Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need that Christians are continuing to leave for a number of reasons – but the key factor is the lack of security.
The patriarch, who was elected on 31st January, said: "They are leaving the country because there is no stability. Another reason is the rise of fundamentalism.
"Christians have lost their trust in the future. They are disappointed."
Patriarch Raphael added that "security and freedom" were the most important issues for the survival of the Church in Iraq.
"When they feel secure, free and equal with the others, they will stay, otherwise they will leave."
According to Church sources, Christians in Iraq have plummeted from 1.4 million in 1987 to perhaps fewer than 250,000 today.
Many Christians who fled the south have not stayed in the north either because they have been unable to find jobs or housing or because they have been reluctant to settle in a region that continues to experience sporadic acts of violence.
Bomb attacks in Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu last month left at least 30 people dead and more than 200 wounded. The violence was politically motivated.
The leader of Iraq's Chaldeans said: "Security is also needed for non-Christians, but they are the majority and normally they belong to tribes, giving them more protection."
Even in the north, Christians have been targeted by Islamists – although events such as the mass torching of Christian-owned business in Zakho in December 2011 are rare.
Patriarch Raphael said: "Fundamentalism does not accept Christians... Extremists think that the reason for their predicament is the West, i.e. Christians."
He added: "The whole situation is bad. There is tension between the government and the opposition, also between the central government and the Kurdish regional government.
"Everyone is waiting for an improvement. We hope for a real reconciliation between the partners."
Patriarch Raphael said that Christians are important in helping to provide cohesion in an unstable region.
Speaking to Catholic media agency AsiaNews earlier this month, he said: "The Pope appealed to me so that we remain, as in the past, a bridge for all, between Christians and Muslims and between Iraqi citizens.
"Among other things, I brought the greetings of two imams, a Shiite and a Sunni, and he was pleasantly surprised and thanked them."
The new Chaldean leader described to ACN how Pope Benedict XVI welcomed him: "He said: 'My congratulations and my prayers. I am happy that the fathers of the synod were united. I hope you can stimulate the dialogue in your country.'"
In conclusion the patriarch asked all the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need to keep Iraq's Christians in their prayers.
He said: "Please pray for the unity of churches and Christian politicians, that we can work together as one team and devise a concrete strategy to keep Christians in their homes and hoping."
Source: Aid to the Church in Need