Christians continue to trickle out of Iraq at an alarming rate, with many still fearing the return of ISIS, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has warned.
In a new report, ‘Life after ISIS: New challenges to Christianity in Iraq’, the Catholic charity warns that the threat to Christians from the Islamic State has only shifted to Shia militias backed by Iran.
ACN said that the number of Christians living in areas formerly under the control of ISIS has dropped by tens of thousands from 102,000 in 2014 to just 36,000 today.
According to the report, more Christians actually left Iraq than returned home last year.
“In the summer of 2019, the Christian population of this region reached an inflection point, with more families leaving their hometown than returning. In Baghdeda alone, 3,000 Syriac Catholics left over the course of just three months in 2019 – a drop of 12% in the number of Syriac Catholics in the town,” it said.
Without “urgent” intervention from the international community, the number of Christians in Iraq could fall to 23,000, ACN warned.
In a survey of Iraqi Christians, ACN found that over half (57%) had contemplated emigrating, with over half of this number saying that if they did leave Iraq, it would be by 2024.
When asked what they were most concerned about, the majority of respondents cited concerns over the safety of their family, with 87% saying they felt either unsafe or absolutely unsafe.
But many are also fearful of the return of ISIS, with over two thirds (67%) believing that it is “likely or very likely” that the militant group will return “in the next five years”.
Fr Andrzej Halemba, head of ACN’s Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, fears that the exodus of Christians from the region will only put more strain on the ones who remain.
“Christians who have returned to their homes still feel unsafe, and substantially more insecure than other groups in the region mostly because of the violent activity of local militias,” he said in a foreward to the report.
“Although economic concerns, especially employment, are paramount in some areas, it is impossible to decouple these from security considerations.
“These key factors need to be addressed to tackle the physical and economic insecurity that forces populations to move.
“If the tendency to emigrate is not stemmed, it will place, in turn, even greater pressure on Christians remaining in Iraq by reducing their critical mass and thus creating a less hospitable environment.”
ACN said the response to the challenges needed to be wideranging.
“The findings … make clear that restoring the stability of the Christian community in this post-conflict region is only possible with a concerted effort focusing on security, education, long-term economic opportunities, and reconstruction,” it said.