'Security needed' to stop Iraqi Christians fleeing says Patriarch

(Photo: Reuters / Thaier Al-Sudan)Iraqi Christian devotees exchange greetings after a Christmas mass at St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Baghdad Dec. 25, 2012.

The leader of Iraq's Chaldean Catholic Church says security is urgently needed to stem the tide of Christians continuing to flee the country.

"They are leaving the country because there is no stability. Another reason is the rise of fundamentalism," Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church told the British-based group, Aid to the Church in Need, Feb. 25.

"Security and freedom," are the most important issues for the Church's survival in Iraq, he said explaining that Christians play an important role in creating social cohesion in the region.

"Christians have lost their trust in the future. They are disappointed," said the Patriarch, who was elected on Jan. 31.

"When they feel secure, free and equal with the others, they will stay, otherwise they will leave."

The church advocacy agency quoted church sources saying Christians in Iraq have plummeted from 1.4 million in 1987 to perhaps fewer than 250,000 today.

Many Christians who fled southern Iraq have not stayed in the north either because they have been unable to find jobs or housing. They have been reluctant to settle in a region that continues to experience sporadic acts of violence.

Bomb attacks in Kirkuk and Tuz Khurmatu in the north last month left at least 30 people dead and more than 200 wounded. Church leaders said the violence was politically motivated and often aimed at Christians by Islamic extremists.

Patriarch Raphael said: "Fundamentalism does not accept Christians... Extremists think that the reason for their predicament is the West, i.e. Christians."

He noted, "The whole situation is bad. There is tension between the government and the opposition, also between the central government and the Kurdish regional government.

"Everyone is waiting for an improvement. We hope for a real reconciliation between the partners."

Patriarch Raphael is head of the Chaldean Patriarchate of Babylon, and is Archbishop of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Baghdad. The Chaldean Catholic Church is one of the Eastern-rite Churches which is in full communion with the church in Rome.

The 64-year-old Patriarch was confirmed in his position on Feb. 1. In 1974 he was ordained a priest for the Chaldean Archeparchy of Mosul. He then served as archbishop of the Chaldean Archdiocese of Kirkuk from 2003 until his selection as patriarch of Babylon.

In 1990 the Chaldean Archdiocese of Baghdad had some 481,000 members. That had plummeted to 140,000 in 2003, when dictators Saddam Hussein's Baathist government was toppled.

In the first three years of the introduction of democracy to Iraq, the archdiocese lost another 5,000 members.

Christians in other countries in the region facing upheaval have also been forced to flee. Some Iraq Christians had fled to Syria and others to Jordan and Lebanon. Many have also gone to Western countries.

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