The number of Christians in Iraq has dwindled to half of what it was before the American invasion in 2003, an Iraqi official said.
Abdallah Al-Nofali, head of the government’s Bureau for the Endowments of Christians and Other Religions, said in an interview with the Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat that according to a recent survey some 40 percent of Iraqi refugees in Syria are Christian.
According to UN statistics, 1.5 million Christians of different sects were living in Baghdad before the American invasion.
“The majority of Christians left Iraq because of religious persecution by extremists,” Joe Obayda, an Iraqi ex-pat living in England told The Media Line. “Today there are less than 500,000 Christians left in Iraq.”
Obayda is a member of the executive council of Iraqi Christians In Need (ICIN), a British charity set up in May 2007 to address the influx of Christians leaving Iraq.
He said that his charity helped both Christian Iraqi refugees in neighboring Arab countries and internally displaced Christians in Iraq.
Obayda said that his cousin was forced to flee Iraq after insurgents tried to forcefully convert his daughters to Islam and demanded money from him.
He added that the United States was partially to blame for the plight of Iraqi Christians.
“The Americans did not foresee the problems that would occur [as a result of the invasion], even though they should have,” he said. “Now that the Americans have left Iraq, the Christians will become a greater target than they already are.”
UNHCR Public Information Officer in Syria Farah Dakhlallah said that the refugees of Syria are predominantly Muslim, not Christian.
“UNHCR currently provides protection and assistance to almost 152,000 registered Iraqi refugees in Syria,” Dakhlallah told The Media Line. “The refugee population, like Iraqi society, is diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status. The majority of those registered with UNHCR are Sunni Muslim at 62 percent, then come the Shia Muslims at 19 percent and the Christians at 11 percent.”
“The Syrian Government counts over 1 million Iraqi refugees in Syria,” Dakhlallah added. “UNHCR cannot reliably verify this figure. We can only account for the number of refugees registered with us, which currently stands at about 152,000.”
Dakhlallah said that Iraqi Christians, like members of other religious groups, might benefit from community networks such as faith-based charities.
“We assist refugees according to their needs, based on their level of vulnerability,” Dakhlallah said.
Meanwhile, the intention of Florida reverend Terry Jones to burn a copy of the Quran on September 11 hit Iraqi Christians hard.
William Wardah, president of the Iraqi Hammurabi Human Rights Organization said that Christians are always the first victims of provocative anti-Muslim protests abroad.
“On September 9, eleven churches in Baghdad were threatened,” he told The Media Line. “The police placed churches and Christian institutions under increased surveillance.”
“Many Christians in Baghdad were verbally abused, especially in ‘hotter’ areas of the city,” Wardah said. “They were told: ‘this time you [the Christians] provoked us, it wasn’t us who provoked you.”
Wardah blamed the American presence in Iraq for Christian suffering in the country.
“Hatred for Christians here is a reaction to American activities in Iraq,” he said. “I even raised this issue with the American Ambassador.”
“Innocent Christians always pay the price for statements like those made by Pope Benedict XVI and President Bush in the past,” Wardah added. “Christians have lived alongside Muslims for centuries, and there weren’t many problems.”
Canon Andrew White, the vicar of St. George, Iraq’s only Anglican Church said that Christians lived under severe threat in Baghdad.
“It has been very bad, but things have quieted down a bit over the past few days,” he told The Media Line. “We’ve had many Christians killed.”
White said enraged Muslims told him that Christians were no longer respecting the Prophet Muhammad.
Joe Obayda was not optimistic about the future of Christians in Iraq.
“Their situation is very difficult. Only last week the Syrian-Catholic church in Basra was bombed, but nobody mentions this.”