Jean Sleiman, the Latin-rite Archbishop of Baghdad, recently spoke to an Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) event in Westminster, England, saying a “paralyzing fear” still grips Iraq’s Christian communities. The archbishop said “very real persecution” remains a threat alongside intense pressure to conform to rigorous Islamic standards, driving many Christians to leave the country.
The archbishop, a Lebanese Carmelite who pastors approximately 5,000 Latin-rite Catholics in Iraq, spoke of the situation in the country before a crowd of more than 400 at the Aid to the Church in Need UK’s annual Westminster Event this past Saturday.
Archbishop Sleiman said most Christians in Iraq still want to leave the country despite the decline of violence in and around Baghdad and the reconstruction efforts in Kurdish areas in the north. He said Baghdad, Mosul, and other regions remained hot-spots of persecution and violence against minority groups.
The Christian population numbered over one million before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, but is now barely 400,000.
“Emigration remains the dream of most people. The hope of emigration – even when it is not realistic – represents a kind of salvation for the people,” Archbishop Sleiman said.
“Very real persecution” remains a huge threat for Christians in some areas, he explained. In other regions “co-existence under pressure” means that Christians are forced to adopt Islamic practices, including dress and veil-wearing. Christians are also pressured to leave.
Even those seeking sanctuary in the Kurdish north of Iraq are suffering exploitation masked by generosity and good-will in the regional government’s church reconstruction projects.
The archbishop reported how the charity Caritas’ general director thanked a Kurdish official for building homes for displaced people from Baghdad.
The officer replied: “We did it for us [Kurds]. We know that you will leave and these houses will be ours.”
Instead of relocating Christians, Archbishop Sleiman said, “the best way to protect, not only Christians but all the citizens, is to bring back the state of law in Iraq.”
He also criticized plans for a Christian “enclave” around the Nineveh Plains, saying the scheme only promotes “a ghetto.”
The Iraqi government recently announced plans to remove the quota requirements for minority group seats in provincial councils, which could affect Christian representation.