Cover Story

The edge of extinction

"The edge of extinction" Continued...

Issue: "Believing in Iraq," May 17, 2014

Where death and danger haven’t taken a toll, separation has. St. George’s has children abandoned by parents who fled the country. And aging parents whose children have all emigrated to Canada or the United States. In a country where tight-knit families are a given—in fact, most parents live with their grown children—the rupture is traumatic. That’s especially true in the Christian community, where numbers are dropping fast.

A policeman searches a man outside Our Lady of Flowers Church on Easter Sunday, 2014.
Associated Press/Photo by Khalid Mohammed
A policeman searches a man outside Our Lady of Flowers Church on Easter Sunday, 2014.
IN 2000 CHRISTIANS MADE up 26 percent of the population in the Middle East. Today they form less than 10 percent of the region’s population. Iraq had an estimated 1.2 million Christians before 2003, and by White’s and others’ estimates has possibly as few as 200,000 Christians now (Operation World in 2010 estimated the Christian population at 500,000).

Militant Islam arrived long before the U.S.-led war, but there’s no question that the ouster of Saddam Hussein—and the inability of the United States, its coalition partners, or any elected Iraqi government since that time to blunt the reach of jihadi-driven terrorists here—has been a major turning point hastening the rate of Christianity’s decline across the region, from Syria and Lebanon to Iraq and Egypt. Experts contemplate that, barring some reversal, Christianity may not survive beyond midcentury in the region of its birth.

‘It’s only a matter of time, 30 years, and no Christians will remain in the whole region.’—Avak Asadourian

“It’s only a matter of time, 30 years, and no Christians will remain in the whole region,” Avak Asadourian, the archbishop of the Armenian Church in Iraq, told me. Asadourian has been primate over the Armenian Church here since 1982, when it numbered about 40,000. At the start of the Iraq war the numbers had fallen to 18,000, and now they are less than 10,000.

“I used to say to parishioners, ‘don’t leave,’ but I can’t say that any more,” said Asadourian. “It would be on my conscience if something happened to them.”  

Other churches experience losses too. The Christian Missionary Alliance Church, the largest evangelical congregation, opened in Baghdad just after the 2003 invasion and grew to over 1,000 members. But as insurgency took hold of the community, members fled Baghdad, several pastors were kidnapped, and the church itself was bombed in 2009. At one point pastor Ghassan Thomas was assisting 1,000 families who sought shelter in churches to escape threats left under their doors and regular bombings and shootings. Thomas sent his own young children to school with pajamas in their backpacks because—he told me then—“we never know if it will be safe enough for them to return home.”

Thomas himself received threats and left for Turkey, planting a church for Iraqi refugees there before emigrating to Australia last year. Today the CMA church has about 250 in attendance, according to its current pastor, Joseph Francis. A women’s meeting I attended Saturday evening was warm, but sparsely attended. The CMA church, too, sits behind blast walls now, but inside the congregation has built a coffee shop, classrooms, and a courtyard with date palms for outdoor gatherings.

Many Iraqis told me that anyone with the means to leave wants to emigrate. But at every church I met Christians determined to stay. “I want to stay all my life,” said Mudafar Yousif, an assistant pastor at the CMA church. “I love my country, and I covenant with the Lord to serve Iraq. I love Baghdad, and I am sure if He wants me here He will keep me safe.”

Yousif was forced out of Iraq under Saddam’s rule but returned from Jordan in 2003. He and his wife have raised two girls, one now in her third year of university-level pharmacy training and another in 10th grade, living in mostly Muslim neighborhoods throughout the war. He is sober about the dangers they face—his older daughter narrowly missed a bomb explosion while waiting to go to school—but also sober about the reality of leaving home. “We hear that people are suffering [in the West] too. The life is very different for us there. And a doctor must work as a gas station attendant.”

A child checks the street before leaving the Assyrian Orthodox church.
Nikos Pilos/Zuma Press
A child checks the street before leaving the Assyrian Orthodox church.
AT ST. GEORGE'S ON SUNDAY evening the air turns soft again and women serve sandwiches and sodas from a large cardboard box on a lawn that’s still abuzz with talk and children’s horseplay long after dark. Outside the blast walls the Muslim call to prayer goes up, melodious but enveloping all other sound.

It’s a metaphor for the life of Iraqi Christians, especially facing another round of elections that will once again reinforce how marginalized they are in the political process. “Did we ever need democracy here?” asks Canon White. “No, democracy is dangerous. What we have is various groups holding power who hate each other.”

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