With Christmas fast approaching, Iraqi Christians are coming to the hard realization that there may be a day when there are no more Christians left in their homeland.
“Christians are being extinguished in Iraq, while Iraq remains Muslim,” said Father Georges Jahola, a Syro-Catholic priest from Mosul, Iraq currently studying in Rome.
Those who remain want to leave because they do not feel safe, he said. “They see that there is no longer a place for Christians in Iraq. Even for us as a Church, we cannot deny it.”
For the past five weeks, Fr. Jahola has spent many hours ministering to victims of the Oct. 31 terror attack on Baghdad's Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation. Some of those most badly wounded in the attack, which left 58 dead, were flown to Rome’s Gemelli Hospital.
At Gemelli, he has been there to provide spiritual support to the patients and their families and to serve as an intermediary in an environment where they don’t speak the local language.
His close bond with the people was instantly visible Dec. 16 as he met with CNA in the hospital’s residence foyer, where the Iraqis have been living. The time has come for some to leave, while others remain in treatment.
They all know those who are going home face an uncertain future.
They are returning to Iraq, Fr. Jahola said, because they cannot bear the thought of living anywhere else. “Even if it costs them their lives,” he added.
Attacks on Christians in Iraq have continued since the cathedral massacre. On Dec. 15, Syro-Catholic Archbishop Athanase Matoka of Baghdad, told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France: “The Christians of Iraq live in fear of the future.”
The Catholic archbishops in both Mosul and Kirkuk have already canceled Christmas vigil celebrations and announced sharply limited Mass schedules for Christmas day due to the threat of terrorism, according to the Italian bishops’ news agency, SIR.
Fr. Jahola acknowledged stories that have circulated among the Iraqis who are fleeing their homeland. He said he believes reports that Christian homes have been marked with red crosses as targets for Islamic extremists. The crosses are a warning of violence to come, he said. They are a sign, he said, that “these people are in (the) Church, so they are still alive. … that we still need to eliminate them.”
No place in Iraq, not even the more peaceful Kurdistan region, provides certainty for Christians to live safely, he said.
Fr. Jahola said that since the beginning of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, every effort to protect Christians has failed. He criticized the walled compounds erected by the Iraqi government around church buildings as a sign of the government’s “incapacity” to keep the situation under control.
Meanwhile, the “decimation” of Christians continues, Fr. Jahola said. Their numbers have been more than cut in half from a population that 10 years ago was estimated around 1.5 million.
“It is alarming, that an ethnic people — a people who speak the ancient Aramaic language and have Christian roots — is being made extinct in the world. And no one intervenes,” he said.
As he pondered the fate of the many who are leaving Iraq, tears welled up in his eyes.
It is no simple thing to leave one’s homeland, he said, adding: “It's just not possible that all Iraqi Christians leave, but also dying there causes us grief.”
Fr. Jahola said that although it seems “absurd,” to return to Iraq, he plans to do so himself when he finishes his studies.
He believes the Iraqi population, shrinking though it may be, has a “unique destiny to maintain with the faith.”
The Baghdad cathedral attack inspired in him strength and resolve that he did not know he had.
“This for me is the strength of the martyrs who witnessed to their faith in the Church,” he said. “For me, I haven't yet done what I need to do, so that awaits me.”