Archbishop Casmoussa of Mosul has guided the Church in northwestern Iraq since 1999.

It has been period in which political repression and more recently religious extremism has threatened to extinguish the Christian footprint here, which dates back to the origins of the Church.

The Vatican announced his retirement March 1, although he will continue to work in the archdiocese, the historic Christian capital of the region where a rich mix of Syriac, Chaldean, Assyrian and Latin Rite Catholics are interspersed with Syrian and Armenian Orthodox Christians amidst the majority Muslim population.

The Christian population has been halved in the last decade — due mostly to emigration because of violence and security concerns, he told CNA in a Feb. 25 interview.

Archbishop Casmoussa believes Iraq now faces a turning point. The nation’s leaders must find a way to ensure equality for people of all religions. Or, he suggests, leaders must consider creating a new autonomous region where Christians could live and practice their religion freely.

“When you haven't got all your rights in your country, you ask for some other way to have your rights,” he said .

Christians in Iraq, he indicated, are seeking a solution that gives them equal rights and equal access to services, infrastructure and employment – and most importantly freedom and security.

As their numbers dwindle, life has grown more difficult for Iraqi Christians who remain. With fewer numbers, they have less clout to demand their rights.

Land and property that have been owned by Christians are being sold off to the government or to non-Christian Iraqis by those who have gone. In the Nineveh plain, historically “Christian” cities and villages are in danger of becoming a thing of the past.

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“We lose our freedom, our majority in our cities, our identity,” Archbishop Casmoussa said.

“If we lose our homes and our lands, we have to choose to be a minority at home or to leave. It is a big problem.”

“What we also need now is to change some laws in Iraq, to have our rights as others,” he said.

At stake is nothing less than the status of non-Muslims as full citizens. Inequalities are written into the very constitution, he complained.

The list of inequalities is long. For instance, every Iraqi must carry a religious identity card. Depending on one’s religion, he said, access to some jobs is impossible. Muslim men can marry Christian women freely, while a Christian man faces death if he even attempts to marry a Muslim woman. Christian education is also sharply restricted.

For the archbishop, Islamist terrorism and political peace are closely linked.

These “executioners,” many of whom come in from abroad, “cannot do anything if they are not supported within the country,” he said.

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He is sure that terrorism will “lose many points” with a better political situation.

Meanwhile, Christians are caught in the crossfire of political power struggles.

“Islamic extremism is not the only part that commits terroristic acts,” he said.

“We can't deny that in Iraq there is a project to have an Islamic state, it is a reality. But, everything is not made by them. We have lived together with Muslim people for hundreds of years without any fear. Yes, each community is separated by religion, but not by life.”

It is “impossible” that all Muslims are “Islamists,” he said.

For Christians still in Iraq today, he said, the greatest concern is the absence of security. He reported that in Mosul, Christians are currently being “pushed out.”

“If the security was retained in the city, I am sure that many Christian families would return to their home.”

In Mosul, the number of Christians is down by half to 50,000 since fighting began. The total number of Christians in Iraq has also been cut in half, leaving between 400,000 and 500,000, he said.

A major concern is not just the loss of Christians, he said, but the “very dangerous” matter of a loss of confidence in their future.

“When you lose your confidence in your country, you lose your confidence in yourself and your history and future.”

The true solution, he said, is not in emigration. The solution “will be found inside Iraq ... to have security, to have jobs, to work everywhere freely, to be respected and to have rights equal to those of others.”

All they ask, he concluded, is to achieve “a basis for an honorable life, with freedom, rights and security ... to continue to rebuild our country with our neighbors, with our Muslim countrymen.”

“We refuse to be separated from them, by the logic of life, but also by respect of each other, from one another. Christians are a minority in Iraq, in Syria, in Jordan. But, it is not a good reason, or enough reason, that if I am from a minority I have fewer rights than others.”

The “big project” now, he said, is rebuilding the country after so many years of war. “And, we can't rebuild it without peace, without security.

“It's the key to the future, for Christians, for Muslims, for all citizens.”