Christian exodus from Iraq accelerating - two thirds have left since 2003

Aid to the Church in Need

The Church in Iraq is on the brink of disappearing into obscurity, according to the country's leading bishop, who says the migration of Christians has shot up.

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako of Baghdad described how the rate of Christians leaving Iraq was growing and went on to raise the spectre of Christianity in Iraq coming "to an end".

In an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need given at the close of a Synod of Chaldean bishops held in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, the Patriarch said: "When I was in Turkey recently, 10 Christian families from Mosul arrived.

"And in the space of only one week, 20 families left Alqosh, a completely Christian town not far from Mosul.

"This is very serious. We are losing our community. If Christian life in Iraq comes to an end, this will be a hiatus in our history."

The head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, which is in full communion with Rome, said the future of Iraq's Christians is under threat: "In 10 years there will perhaps be 50,000 Christians left."

He said that Iraq's Christians had fallen from 1.2 million before 2003 to perhaps as few as 400,000 today. Other reports give an even lower figure for the number of Christians in Iraq today. Up to two-thirds of Christians in Iraq are Chaldeans.

Assessing the country's political crisis, the Patriarch, who lives in Baghdad, described the disintegration of Iraq as inevitable. He said: "Perhaps there will be a symbolic unit and the name Iraq may continue to exist.

"But de facto there will be three independent zones with their own budgets and armies... At present, there are three fragments of Iraq: a Sunni one, a Kurdish one and a Shiite one. The Kurds already enjoy autonomy anyway. The Shiites do as well in a sense. Now the Sunnis are following suit. Iraq will therefore be divided up."

Patriarch Sako said that the position of the Christian community in Iraq after it disintegrates is uncertain.

He said: "To be honest, we bishops are somewhat at a loss at the present time. The future may lie in Kurdistan. Many Christians are already living there after all. But there are also many who live in Baghdad, and there are also some in Basra in the Shiite south. We must wait and see how things develop."

Patriarch Sako stressed that the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) extends beyond the Middle East.

"ISIS intends to found an Islamic state with oil wells in order to Islamise the world. I think this is a danger for all."

But the Patriarch does not discount the possibility of a political solution to the present crisis. He said: "Such a possibility will still exist if the west and our neighbours such as Iran, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia want it to."

Patriarch Sako was sharply critical of countries in the West: "They find football more interesting than the situation here or in Syria. Western policy only pursues economic interests. The international community should put pressure on Iraqi politicians to make them find a political solution and form a government of national unity."

The Patriarch also rejected any suggestion of U.S. military intervention.

He said: "The Americans have been here and they made a lot of mistakes. The current situation is their fault. Why replace a regime [with] something even worse? This is what happened after 2003."

Last month, Aid to the Church in Need gave emergency help of nearly £80,000 (EUR100,000) to help Christians and others fleeing Mosul which was seized by ISIS on 10th June.