Iraqi Christians face an uphill battle for survival
"There was an altar, there, in the middle," he says softly, walking through the deserted church. "And a cross…I used to celebrate mass as a parish priest of this church in 1996. And look now, there is nothing left. There are not even Christian families living in this neighbourhood anymore".
Saint Jacob church was burnt down by Islamic State (IS) militants in 2015 and never rebuilt. "It does not even make sense anymore," sighs the 55-year-old priest. Before the US invasion in 2003, Dora hosted the largest community of Assyrian Christians in the Iraqi capital. Today, the nearest church is a few blocks away but grows emptier every week.
Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq was home to one of the largest Christian communities in the Middle East but years of war, persecution from Al Qaeda, and then IS, have forced thousands of Christian families into exile.
"There are less than half a million Christians left in all Iraq, out of six million in 2003. In Baghdad they were more than 750,000. Today, they are no more than 75,000," explains William Warda, President of the Hammurabi organisation for the protection of religious minorities.
|The Christian community in Iraq has dwindled by 90 percent since 2003|
During 35 years as a priest in Baghdad, Father Nadhir Dako has seen many churches close down. In his parish, the Chaldean church of Saint Joseph in Karrada, central Baghdad, the situation is also bleak. "I have around 150 families of the faithful left. All the others went to Turkey, Jordan or Europe and no one ever managed to come back. In their absence, Shia pro-Iranian militias who dominate Iraqi society seized their properties".
In a country controlled by corruption, jobs in public administration positions are often distributed among influential members, nearly all Sunni or Shia. As each day passes, more and more Christians consider the possibility of leaving Iraq, which is facing the worst economic crisis in recent history.
|Years of war and persecution have forced tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians into exile. [Getty]|
"Here in Karrada, a lot of people work in shops in the zone where anti-government protests raged from October 2019. And then, months of lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic made the rest," explains the priest. But communitarian disputes are also a pressing concern. Sanaa Hannah Aissa and her husband Raad Aso Sabri lost two children because of IS. Years after the end of the so-called caliphate, they still don't feel safe to express their faith in Baghdad.
"When we sit on our porch, we cannot help thinking that our children got killed here and anybody could come back to hurt us again," they say mournfully, holding in their hands photos of their murdered boys. Years of war have also impacted the community spirit and mutual assistance once present in the parish. "Our hearts are always in pain. We all have our problems and none of us has any strength left to take care of others," admits Sanaa.
|It's very hard when you see your followers leave the country. You pray alone at the altar, with just a few people. You feel yourself a foreigner|
This Christmas, their hopes were raised by the announcement of Pope Francis' visit in March 2021. The first ever visit to Iraq by a Pope, Sanaa is not alone in hoping that it might help improve the fortunes of the persecuted Christian community in the country.
In their Christmas messages, the bishops of Iraq sent a message of hope to Christians who have emigrated. According to Cardinal Luis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of the Catholic Chaldean Church in Iraq, the Pope's visit will "give back hope to the Iraqi people who suffered a lot and will encourage Christians to come back".
This year for the first time, Christmas Day was officially recognised as a public holiday across Iraq. Announced two years ago by the government, the measure was ratified by Baghdad's parliament at the beginning of December, alongside news of the Pope's visit. But much work is still to be done by Iraqi legislators to protect Christians in the country. According to Iraq's constitution, Islam is a fundamental source of rights, and no law can be issued if it does not conform to the principles of Sharia law.
|Read more: Saviour or dictator: Copts in Sisi's Egypt
trapped by a strongman's balancing act
"Christians face many problems today because of laws that should be amended," William Warda says. "Laws related to inheritance for example. In Islam, a woman inherits half that of a man. Or laws concerning marriage, divorce and the adoption of children. Minors from non-Muslim couples are still registered as Muslim even if one of the parents was or decided to become Muslim, regardless of the wishes of the other parent," he says.
In a country which is 97 percent Muslim, religious minorities are tolerated, but often from a distance. "This society walks on a track, like a train, Christian families walk in one direction, Muslim families walk in another direction and they both coexist peacefully," Raad Mohsen Al-Samarrai, Imam at Al-Hamid Al Majid- Mosque and a scholar in Islamic jurisprudence, says. "This coexistence does not mean that they should marry each other, the two societies understand that they are Christian families on one side and Muslim families on another side."
Nevertheless, Father Nadhir says he receives couples on a weekly basis facing issues with their religious communities. "Saida converted to Islam to marry a Muslim man. They had three children, then divorced after ten years of marriage," he recalls. "Now she wants to come back to her Christian faith and marry with a Christian man. But she says her husband's community is threatening her not to do so," the priest says, adding "for Christians wanting to remain as such, even after a mixed marriage, or for Muslims wanting to convert, there is still no other way than going abroad".
With Christians now less than two percent of the Iraqi population, Father Nadhir is sorrowful about the future. "It's very hard when you see your followers leave the country. You pray alone at the altar, with just a few people. You feel yourself a foreigner".
Sofia Nitti is an Italian video journalist based in Baghdad, Iraq
Follow her on Twitter: @SofiaNitti