Baghdad churches close as Iraq's Christians continue to leave

Eight churches in Baghdad have closed their doors permanently due to the mass exodus of believers from Iraq.

The decision, made by the Vatican earlier this year, comes after seven years of falling or no attendance and is symbolic of the wholesale emigration of Christians from the Middle East.

Amounting to nearly 10 per cent of Iraq's population at the start of the 21st century, Christians made up 40 per cent of those fleeing from the start of the Iraq War in 2003 to 2007, leaving just a handful behind.

Christian worshippers pray at one of the remaining churches in BaghdadReuters

International Christian Concern, a persecution charity, has documented this decline and points to three stages of Christians fleeing Iraq, the first from 2005-2007, the second in 2010 when extremists attacked a church during Sunday mass and the third stage in 2014 when ISIS attacked the Nineveh Plain.

As Iraq descended into sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia groups after the removal of Saddam Hussein, Christians became an easy target for both sides, ICC says.

One former resident, Seza, told the watchdog: 'In early 2006, we forcibly left our house because we got an envelope tell[ing] us, 'You have to leave within 48 hours, all you have to take is your clothes, if you t[ake] anything else we will kill you.

'Still I have the envelope and the three bullets we received from the gang.'

Another, Sargon, told ICC: 'I used to see dead bodies for unknown people every day when I come back from work; our sons used to sleep at their friends' or relatives' houses sometimes because, in 2005, if time passed 6 pm, most probably you will be killed if you come to our house or, if you are lucky, you will find the road blocked, anyway.

'A check point for Islamic extremists [was] established 20 metres from our house in January 2006,' Sargon continued.

'A week later, they connected an explosive device to our external door. The next morning, my wife was getting out to purchase some vegetables and an explosion took place. The explosion wasn't too huge, but it was enough to kill the one who open[ed] the door; it's good my wife [is] still beside me.'

The second major blow to Christianity in Iraq came in 2010 when six jihadists stormed Sunday evening mass at the Sayedat al-najat Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad.

When Iraqi security forces arrived they detonated their suicide belts, killing 58, and wounding 78 more.

'We've lost part of our soul,' Rudy Khalid, age 16, told the New York Times at the time. 'Our destiny, no one knows what to say of it.'

Reuters

ISIS' invasion represents the third stage of assaults on Christians in Iraq, leaving just a fragment behind.

'It's important to recognise that ISIS is not solely responsible for this,' an ICC statement reads.

'Christians have faced various forms of persecution and discrimination from a wide variety of perpetrators throughout the past 15 years.'

The closure of the eight churches is emblematic of a broader picture. There are fewer and fewer Christians left in Iraq to fill them and take their place in what was once a religiously diverse country. Unless their prospects change soon, Christianity will survive only in the history books of a country that was one of its birthplaces. 

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