Iraq's ancient Christian community has run out of time and will disappear soon, a senior Iraqi churchman has said.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil made his alarming prediction at a press conference for the launch of the Aid to the Church in Need report on oppressed Christians abroad, Persecuted and Forgotten?
Speaking in Westminster yesterday, alongside Archbishop Vincent Nichols, Archbishop Warda said that there were fewer than 200,000 Christians left in Iraq and "the time for waiting" was running out.
Declaring that figure to be "optimistic", he said: "From what we have seen so far our people have lost patience. The past is terrifying, the present is not promising. All is left is the very limited choice of emigration, to Jordan and Turkey."
He cited Mosul, one of the most dangerous cities in the world to be a Christian, where hundreds were driven out in October 2009, saying: "In 2003 there were 4,000 Chaldean families, 1,000 Christians from other churches, and 11 active Chaldean churches. Now six churches have been closed, and if it goes this way, it won't be this long before certain areas of Iraq are evacuated.
"We have freedom of worship, but not freedom of religion, that is not allowed, in any Islamic state."
The 41-year-old archbishop was previously rector of St Peter's Chaldean Catholic Seminary in Dora, a Christian neighbourhood of Baghdad before the 2003 invasion. The seminary had to move to Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, last year due to violence. Islamists have cleansed Dora almost entirely of Christians. The archbishop plans to build a Catholic University and Church-run hospital in Erbil, which will be open to all.
He described how many Christians in Baghdad and Mosul had received warnings through text messages or bullets, sometimes delivered by policemen. Some clerics received three bullets, one representing murdered priest Fr Ragheed Ganni, another for the murdered Archbishop Rahho, and another for the intended victim.
He said that, although Christians were safer in the Kurdish-controlled regions of northern Iraq, they still lacked economic security and were so impoverished some had resorted to prostitution. Some 5,000 Christian families had fled to the Kurdish-controlled region and yet, he said, the Iraqi Government cared so little for them that they had demanded European governments paid for their resettlement.
"It was a strange statement," he said of the Government's demand: "They are not some group who have emigrated from Europe. They do not come from Europe!"
Aid to the Church in Need's report found that persecution was intensifying in two thirds of the worst countries, and that many Christian communities in the Middle East faced extinction within a generation. Archbishop Warda thanked the charity and asked Christians in the west to raise awareness and making politicians aware of what was going on.
"We need to bear the cross," the archbishop said, "but it is getting heavy."