Most refugees from Iraq and Syria who are seeking resettlement in Europe are Muslims, but an estimated 10 percent are from religious minorities, adding to fears that both countries could be witnessing the death knell of once-thriving Christian and Yazidi communities.
While there is increasing clamor in Europe and Australia and among Christian evangelicals in the United States for Christian refugees to be given priority for resettlement, Syrian and Iraqi bishops are urging Western countries not to encourage Christian emigration from their war-torn countries, fearing the annihilation of communities that can trace their origins back to the first and second centuries.
And the bishops have been pleading with their parishioners to stay.
The leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Baghdad recently warned Christian relief organizations to restrain themselves from encouraging the emigration, saying it might lead to the entire Middle East being emptied of Christians.
The Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Louis Raphael I, said, ”Any declaration that may incite our people to emigrate is irresponsible at this time.”
He was echoing a plea made earlier this month by a senior Catholic prelate in Syria, who urged young Syrian Christians not to join the growing exodus to Europe.
Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorios III said the scale of youth immigration is so high it amounts to a tsunami, one that risks wiping out the church in Syria.
“Given this tsunami of emigration …What future is left for the Church? What will become of our homeland? What will become of our parishes and institutions?,” he asked in an open letter.
Priority status in U.S.
In several Western countries, however, there are mounting calls for Christian refugees to be given priority.
Timed to coincide with Pope Francis’s official visit to the United States, a bipartisan group of 16 U.S. lawmakers led by Republican Senator Rob Portman called Wednesday on President Barack Obama to include Christians and other persecuted religious minorities in a recently announced plan to accept 100,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict. The lawmakers say the refugees need protection from Islamic State extremists.
“The United States has a strategic and moral imperative to reaffirm our commitment to protecting religious freedom around the world and must do more to support religious minority groups under siege by ISIL,” the senators and congressman stated in the letter.“ As a country with a proud history of welcoming those seeking to practice their faith without fear or discrimination, the United States is well suited to resettling these refugees into existing faith communities.”
Syrian civil war
Since the civil war erupted in Syria in 2011, millions have been forced to flee their homes, among them Christians, Yazidis and members of other religious minorities. They have been targeted by the Islamic State group in both Syria and Iraq and subjected to atrocities, forcible conversion and enslavement.
With the Syrian civil war increasingly developing on sectarian lines, Christians have suffered persecution at the hands of other rebel groups too, refugees say.
Syrian Christian refugees in southeast Turkey - many of whom are retreading the steps of their forebears who fled persecution in southern Turkey during the last century - say they are often seen as fair game by an assortment of jihadists and Islamist rebels.
Last year, Christian refugees described to VOA the execution of a half dozen of their co-religionists in the northwestern village of al-Yakubiye, in Idlib province, by Sunni Muslims aligned with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
Rahel, a 45-year-old former teacher, said, “Al Nusra didn’t come to our village; the people who came were from villages close by, and they were Free Syrian Army.”
Christians were targeted because they were seen as being pro-Assad, although she added some of the persecution was motivated by greed, with the better off being targeted first and their property divided by powerful local Sunni Muslim families.
Nearly a third of Syria’s Christians, an estimated 600,000, have fled the country. Before the war, Christians accounted for about 10 percent of Syria’s population of 22 million.
In Iraq, the Christian minority made up of Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriacs began to leave the country even before the current conflicts in the region, which has just added impetus to the flight.
Since the 1990s, hostility from the government of Saddam Hussein - and, since his fall, sectarian killings and bombings and an increasingly aggressive Islamist political culture - have forced two-thirds of Iraq’s Christians to flee overseas, slashing the population from 1.5 million to an estimated 300,000 today.
With the advance by Islamic State militants into the Nineveh plains, the original Assyrian heartland where Christians speak Assyrian as their first language and Arabic their second, the exodus has become rushed. The Nineveh plains are where Thaddeus, an early Jewish convert to Christianity, is thought to have preached the Gospel, sent there by one of the apostles, Thomas.
Debate over priority
The plight of Christians in Syria and Iraq has stirred debate in several Western countries about whether they should be given priority. U.S. and British officials say they are loath to focus on Christians among the Syrian and Iraqi diaspora for fear of feeding into the “clash of civilizations” propaganda promoted by jihadists - and by far-right politicians in the West.
This has left both governments open to mounting domestic criticism that they have not been doing enough for Christian refugees - from right-wing evangelical groups to more moderate Christian leaders.
While calling for Britain to take in more refugees generally, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the head of the worldwide Anglican church, raised concerns about a British plan to take in refugees only from camps in the region for fear that will exclude Christians.
Speaking in the House of Lords, he warned, “Within the camps there is significant intimidation and radicalization, and many particularly of the Christian population who have been forced to flee are unable to be in the camps.”
Members of Australia’s government have been sharply and publicly divided not only about the numbers of refugees the country should admit but also over the religious background of those admitted.
Malcolm Turnbull, just days before becoming the country’s prime minister after ousting Tony Abbott, said the focus should be on Christians, arguing he was doubtful that Christians can survive in Syria and Iraq.
“In an increasingly sectarian Middle East, you have to ask whether the gaps, the spaces that they were able to live and survive in will any longer be available,” he said.