Sharp decline in the number of Christian Chaldeans–Syriacs–Assyrians, two-thirds of Suraye have left Iraq since 2003

BAGHDAD – Since ancient times, Christian churches and components of the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people, or Suraye as they call themselves in their Surith language, have been subject to persecution, destruction, massacres, displacement, and kidnappings (in no particular order) in the Iraqi part of Mesopotamia.

They were and are the victims of oppressive rulers and regimes, of extremist jihadists and militants of different stature and ideology. No adversity or carnage has been spared on the Christian Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians and this troubled and bloody history has forced and continues to force them to emigrate outside their Mesopotamian homeland in search of safety and stability.

Almost two-thirds of Christian Suraye have left Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

This October 31, 2020, was the tenth anniversary of the jihadist suicide attack by al-Qaida affiliates on the Syriac Catholic Sayidat al-Nejat Cathedral where a several hundred Christian Suraye were celebrating Sunday evening mass. The jihadist suicide attack left dozens of Suraye faithful and two Syriac priests dead. Days later Islamic jihadists attacked and bombed Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian homes and neighborhoods across Baghdad.

All Syriac churches in Baghdad, whether Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Chaldean Catholic, and especially the two former Church of the East churches, the Ancient Church of the East and the Assyrian Church of the East, have witnessed a sharp and remarkable decrease in the last two decades in the number of participants in Sunday mass. The number members of the Assyrian Church of the East in Iraq is even estimated at an upsettingly low maximum number of 10 thousand.

The ones who stayed in their homeland have different reasons. Some saw the church as a safe haven despite the continuous wars and hostilities in the country, some kept hoping for an improvement in conditions and better times, while others had patriotic motives not to leave their Mesopotamian homeland.

In an interview with Radio France International (RFI), Syriac William Warda of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organization, the number of Christian Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians left in Iraq number somewhere between 300-400 thousand, down from 1.5 million in 2003. The Hammurabi Human Rights Organization is a non-profit organization defending the rights of Christian components in Iraq, which is mainly the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian and Mandean peoples.

Warda further commented to RFI that Baghdad had about 750.000 Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian residents in the year 2003. Their number in the Iraqi capital does not exceed 75 thousand today.

In south Baghdad, in the Dora area, an area which used to have entire neighborhoods for Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians, including merchants, doctors, and café owners, the number of Christians was a 150 thousand, of whom only a thousand remain.

In the Radio France International (RFI), 53-year-old deacon of St. Joseph’s Cathedral of the Syriac Chaldean Catholic Church says he is the only one from his family left in Iraq. His parents and siblings emigrated after 2003. But after 35 years serving as a deacon at St. Joseph Church he has seen the parish shrink year by year. He says in disappointment to RFI that the last 3 to 4 years, ongoing immigration made the numbers of faithful attending service dropped: “It used to be full even on regular weekdays.”

How to stop the Iraqi Suraye exodus and return refugees?

Nineveh Plain

A safe and prosperous Iraq where Suraye can live their culture, language, and Christianity in peace and security is unlikely in the short term. And the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people cannot afford to wait for geopolitical powers to agree on how to “fix” Iraq. This can take years and nothing is certain. Muddling through the current way is definitely not an option. Emigration keeps emptying Iraq from its indigenous Suraye. Almost two-thirds of the Christian Suraye of 1.4-1.6 million have left Iraq since the U.S. invasion in 2003. So far only an estimated one-third of the pre-ISIS Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian population of 120-150 thousand has returned to their homes in the Nineveh Plain.

A 2017 proposal from Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian political parties to create a Nineveh Plain Governate in the combined unified area of the districts of Baghdede (Hamdaniya), Tel Kaif and a part of Shekhan, must therefore be seriously examined.

For there to be “any real hope for the rebuilding of the Nineveh Plain and the return of its people,” in June 2017, seven Iraqi Suraye political parties with the endorsement of some of the Syriac churches, demanded a Nineveh Plain Governate “leading to an autonomous region” based on Resolution no. 16 which contains an approval in principle issued by the Iraqi Council of Ministers on January 21, 2014. The political parties in their Proposal claim that Chaldeans-Syriacs-Assyrians, Yazidis, and other ethnic and religious indigenous components of the area need political empowerment and that only a reasonable degree of self-representation and self-defense can return its original persecuted Suraye residents.

An autonomous Nineveh Plain region will create new political and security dimensions. It would need “clear political support to the principles of self-governance and self-defense of Nineveh Plain” by the U.S. and the EU. The U.S. and EU would need to negotiate the demanded degree and terms of self-representation and self-defense with the Iraqi central government and the Barzani family-led Kurdish Regional Government. The empowerment of Suraye and Yazidis is supported by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which in its 2020 Annual Report calls on the U.S. government to empower Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities in attaining self-governance and a representational security framework in the Nineveh Plains and Sinjar regions of northern Iraq.

A high degree of US and EU-backed self-representation and self-defense may be the last chance to help the Chaldean-Syriac-Assyrian people stay in their ancient homeland and avoid the total elimination of their culture and faith. And it it may be the only alternative for the Suraye refugees in Jordan to opt for a return.