Iraqi Christians: Better off than other Iraqi refugees?

Arab Christians in the US and elsewhere help facilitate the resettlement of Iraqi Christians fleeing violence in Iraq. Is the Western media overplaying the challenges facing Christians in Iraq?

By , Correspondent

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    An Iraqi Christian prays in front of a gypsum statue of Jesus Christ made by a local resident at the town of Qaraqush in Iraq's northern province of Nineveh May 10.
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On Wednesday night, Americans tuning into Cornerstone TeleVision, a Christian network, will hear what has become a familiar narrative to Christian communities over the last seven years: the hardship story of their fellow Iraqi believers.

“Undercover with Persecuted Christians,” which promises to take “viewers to places where believers suffer most for their faith,” opens with an episode about Iraqi Christians.

Of all the minority groups affected by fighting in Iraq, Christians may be the one group Americans and the West have heard the most about. In part, that’s because Iraqi Christians have suffered a disproportionate amount of violence throughout the war.

But what’s often not reported is that Iraqi Christians refugees tend to receive more support than most other Iraqis. In large part due to a well-connected and affluent Arab Christian community abroad, more so than any other group in Iraq, Iraq Christians have had the least trouble resettling overseas.

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And despite persistent violence in Iraq, there are also signs that peaceful cohabitation between Christians and other ethnic groups is occurring in many places in the country.

Still, their numbers in Iraq have been deplete so much – to almost half of the population before the war – many Iraqi Christians worry that those who continue to take advantage of resettlement options abroad could bring about the end to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

Since the war began, targeted attacks have forced nearly two-thirds of Iraqi Christians from their homes and though they only made up 5 percent of the Iraqi population before the war, they now make up 20 percent of Iraq’s refugees. Additionally, of the up to 1.4 million Christians in the country in 2003, as few as 500,000 remain.

The flow of newly displaced refugees both in and outside of Iraq has slowed to a trickle as violence remains at all time lows, but a brief new wave of displaced Christians made headlines in February as they fled targeted attacks in Mosul. Many Western media outlets latched onto the story as another example of Christian suffering in the Middle East.

For most it was a temporary exodus. A little more than a month after an estimated 1,121 Christian families (about 6,726 people) were displaced, all but 233 families have returned to their homes, according to a new report by the International Organization on Migration.

In fact, a UNHCR report last November found that while the number of newly registered Sunnis and Shiites refugees have been steadily increasing, the number of Christians have decreased by 21.3 percent compared to the end of 2008.

Iraqi Christians at front of refugee resettlement line

Christians face the same challenges as other refugees while awaiting asylum, but many people who work with refugees say that they often have an easier time navigating the resettlement process.

“In some instances you could even say [Iraqi Christians] have actually had greater access to resources, international connections, and solutions, and, in some instances, you could also say they’ve been favored by the system,” says Elizabeth Campbell, a senior advocate at Refugees International, an advocacy group for displaced people.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees does not make its records public on the religious or ethnic demographics of those resettled, but Imran Riza, the UNHCR representative in Amman, says the disproportionately large number of Christian refugees is reflected in resettlement patterns.

Ms. Campbell says that the initial wave of Iraqis resettled in the US, contained a disproportionately large number of Christians, even compared to their already oversized presence among Iraqi refugees. This was not the result of UNHCR policies that favored Christians, she says, but rather the work of Christian and other religious groups who helped fellow Christians understand the importance of registering with the UNHCR for resettlement. Consequently, a large number of Christians ended up at the front of the line for resettlement.

Meanwhile a number of other Iraqis failed to register with UNHCR because they didn’t feel the organization provided enough aid or they feared possibly being deported because they’d illegally entered Jordan or overstayed their visa.

Helping hand from Arab Christians in the US

For decades, a sizable Iraqi and Arab Christian diaspora has been building outside the Middle East. While Christians are a minority in most Arab countries, within Arab communities abroad they often constitute the majority. In the US, for example, 63 percent of Arab Americans identify as Christian, while only 24 percent say they are Muslim.

“Inside Iraq the levels of a wider community of support are non-existent for them, whereas outside of Iraq there are Christian groups that will be in much greater solidarity with them,” says Bill Frelick, director of the refugee policy program at Human Rights Watch.

Although the UNHCR works to make the resettlement process as egalitarian and need-based as possible, Mr. Frelick says that those who are able to get help navigating the system, even if it’s something as simple as learning how to access the UNHCR website, stand a much better chance at resettlement.

While the UNHCR does not make its recommendations for resettlement based on people’s religious or ethnic backgrounds, it does consider how their background could contribute to their level of vulnerability.

“Christians have been targets and threatened in Iraq … but in a way all minority groups are targeted,” says Riza.

Still, as more Christians find ways to leave Iraq, many in the Middle East’s Christian community are asking if it might be better for them to stay and preserve traditions in the region.

“The local church in Jordan does not encourage Iraqi people, Christians and Muslims, but particularly Christians to leave their country, because we need their presence there. They are one of the most ancient ethnic and religious groups there is,” says Father Hanna Kailbali, a Jordanian Roman Catholic priest who has worked with Iraqi Christian refugees.

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