Iraq is home to one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world, some of whose members still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But their numbers have plummeted to around 200,000 from 1.5 million before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. A Christian exodus, if it isn’t reversed, would be a devastating loss for Iraq. Iraqi Christians are well-organized, and for years they’ve tended to the educational, cultural and social needs of the wider society.
Christians have also historically helped stabilize the volatile region. “Christians have always played a key role in building our societies and defending our nations,” Jordan’s King Abdullah has said. “There is no Iraq without Christians,” says Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Iraqi Christians’ fear of and mistrust toward their Muslim neighbors is palpable. Many tell me that soon after they made their initial journey north, they received telephone calls from their former neighbors telling them that there was no longer any threat, that they could return home. Upon doing so, however, they quickly fell into the hands of Islamic State and had their possessions stolen before being sent off into exile again.
Christians now feel betrayed by their neighbors, who, they insist, are fully subscribed to Islamic State’s ideology. One Assyrian Christian tells me, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State, “Even if Daesh is driven out, how can we return to a place where there is so much hatred for us? They are Daesh, just without the balaclavas.”