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Assyrians in Iraq Dwindle and Struggle to Survive
By Ash Gallagher
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Christians in Iraq are dwindling. Chased out, targeted and caught in the middle of rival sectarian conflicts, the minority religious sect is struggling to survive. The country once held over 1.5 million Christians, but since 2003 and the American invasion and occupation, the numbers have dwindled. The population had shrunk to under half a million in 2013 and after the rise of Daesh, it is estimated there are just 250,000 left. Many have fled -- first to surrounding countries, like Jordan and Turkey, but this still only makes up a small percentage of the total. As many as 20,000 are estimated to be in Lebanon, whichs holds one of the largest Christian populations in the region. Christian political parties in Lebanon have influence, were combatants in their own civil conflict, and have supportive communities.

Related: Timeline of ISIS in Iraq
Related: Attacks on Assyrians in Syria By ISIS and Other Muslim Groups
Many Christians from Iraq are hesitant to go back. Some Christians of Arab descent say they'd consider going to the Kurdish region in Iraq--which thrives on ethnic over religious governance--but still others say they've been targets of Kurdish authorities pushing for 'Kurdification' in the northern Iraq region and have been subject to threats and intimidation. In 2016, the US admitted at least 37,000 Christians, most of them from Syria, but only 7,800 were from Iraq. Interestingly enough, Christians in Iraq have been at a higher risk of being targeted by extremist groups because in Syria for example, they are either protected by the Assad regime, which carries joint minority support, or have family members in Lebanon. Nevertheless, despite US President Donald Trump's claims that it was more difficult to get into the country as a Christian, only 32 percent of Muslim refugees have been admitted since 2003 as compared to 46 percent of those with a Christian background. Even so, for the ones who stayed in Iraq, they're not getting the help that the West promised. Earlier this year, US Vice President Mike Pence said, "Christianity is under unprecedented assault in those ancient lands," as the US cut funding to the United Nations aid services and committed to giving money to smaller organizations for minority groups in Iraq and Syria.
Related: Brief History of Assyrians
Related: Assyrians: Frequently Asked Questions
Pence, a self-acclaimed Christian, has been key in leading the agenda for US evangelical groups who want to preserve Christianity in the Middle East. And since then, Pence has put pressure for at least 35 million dollars in funds to be released to Christian and Yazidi groups. But many organisations supporting Christians in Iraq have been turned down by USAID -- where much of the funding is funnelled. And with tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians outside of Iraq and hesitant to return, it will be hard to rebuild the communities. Vested interests Sadly, Evangelical groups in the US rave about protecting Christians in the region, but rarely do they actually understand the needs of their counterparts. And to make matters worse; they fail to understand the life or philosophy of their Middle Eastern counterparts. They are under the impression that they're pushing for the survival of some Western brand of Christianity - as a way to realise an end-times prophecy that will bring historical Jesus to earth. This is not how Christians from Iraq see their own preservation. They're considered one of the oldest sects in the world, some still carrying out church services in Aramaic, the language, believed to be spoken by Jesus, and their expansion into the region dates as far back as the first century. For centuries after, they coexisted with other groups and after Arab conquests in the 7th Century; they still found some favour under historical Muslim empires. While it's important to note that by the 13th and 14th centuries Christians faced persecution amid war and regional conflict, the Chaldean and Assyrian traditions survived. Christians practiced their faith openly, and were often unified with their neighbours -- who came from Sunni and Shia Islam and Yazidi faith. But many say that changed after 2003. And the lack of services, like electricity, water and jobs made it harder to survive particularly in Nineveh Province, in northern Iraq -- even before the Daesh occupation. Overa the last four years, many of the Christians scattered south to Baghdad, others north to Dohuk, where there are more resources -- and don't foresee going back to Nineveh, which still sits under a lot of rubble and debris. But there is also a lack of knowledge and education among American Christians about the Chaldean and Assyrian factions -- who are part of the Catholic umbrella. The rivalry between Catholics and Evangelicals in America is an age-old theological conflict, where Evangelicals see themselves as the 'right' kind of Christian. It's also worth noting white Evangelical Christians don't find ethnic Arabs synonymous with Christian, branding them all as Muslim. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, over 100 Iraqi Christians were held up in airports across the country after Trump's ban on Muslim majority countries was signed in 2017 -- despite promises to prioritise Christian asylum seekers. Many Christian towns and cities felt betrayed by the West during Daesh's onslaught -- forgotten and even abandoned. And now without security or funding, they don't have an interest in returning home. The Christian tradition in the Middle East is about a lifestyle and identity; it's about unity with their neighbours and friends from other faiths. They are far less worried about a Biblical theology in the future than they are worried about feeding their children and having somewhere to rest their head at night. And it's important to remember, Iraqis across all faiths believe if the Iraqi government doesn't prioritise rebuilding Mosul and if the international community doesn't help, the economic disparity could lead to further tribalism and another version of Daesh, or another sectarian conflict. For now, the pews in the churches are seeing less people attend services, and like other minorities in Iraq, the Christian communities are fighting to survive. The priests, comforting and working with surviving families, can only pray more will come home and rebuild their lives and their history.

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