A new report estimates that between 50 and 80 percent of Christians have fled the countries of Iraq and Syria since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011.
Released by Christian advocacy groups Open Doors, Served, and Middle East Concern, the report estimates that at least 100,000 Iraqi Christians have fled or are internally displaced, and that the Christian population of Syria has been ‘roughly halved’, from about 2 million, since 2011.
“Factors for leaving included the violence of conflict, including the almost complete destruction of some historically Christian towns in the Nineveh plains of northern Iraq, the emigration of others and loss of community, the rate of inflation and loss of employment opportunities, and the lack of educational opportunities,” states the report.
The information for the report was gathered through a series of interviews with various sources, including NGO staffers and religious leaders, and also includes the findings of academic studies.
The report tracked the emigration of those Christians who have fled the Middle East to Europe, even though others have traveled to Asia, Australia or the Americas.
Since the 2003 U.S. invasion and the rise of the Islamic State, increased violence in Iraq and Syria has resulted in the targeted killings and expulsions of many Christians, with many fleeing to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, or beyond, while others are displaced within their home countries.
The arrival of the Islamic State made the situation especially dire for Christians, who were forced to either pay a tax, convert, or leave if they didn’t want to be killed.
That was the “tipping point” for Christians in the area who had already experienced an “overall loss of hope for a safe and secure future,” the report notes.
Iraq once had a Christian population of as many as 1.4-2 million in the 1990s, which declined to around 300,000 by 2014, and is now down to approximately 100,000. Most of those internally displaced have fled to Erbil.
Pinpointing the exact number of Christians who have stayed in or fled Syria is more difficult, though the report notes that numerous regions and towns that once had large Christian populations have decreased significantly since the start of the war, with some communities all but disappearing.
The report estimates that approximately half of Syria’s estimated 2 million Christians have left, and a survey found that of the Christians still in the country, about 35 percent wish to leave, compared to eight percent of the country’s Muslims.
Of the Christians who fled, many chose to seek resettlement in other countries through family or Church organizations rather than through state-sponsored refugee resettlement programs.
“Trust in churches allows people to feel more comfortable to register with them. Furthermore, it is seen to be less demeaning to have to line up to receive assistance ‘provided in a sensitive way in the safe space of a church,’” the report found.
The hope for return to their home countries varied among those who had fled. For the most part, those who were settled in their destination countries reported not wanting to return, while those who have encountered more difficulties in the resettlement process either have returned or hope to return someday.
Sweden and Germany have become popular destinations because of the ease of resettlement and the ability to find work, though the report found that due to new policies in these countries, that may change.
Published with the report was a policy proposal paper for the EU, since the report tracked only those Christians fleeing to Europe. It made several recommendations, including establishment of an “accountability mechanism,” to the European Union Parliament.
“Creating a national accountability mechanism for grievances is a long-term solution which aims to restore faith in a system that ensures all religious and ethnic communities are affirmed as equal citizens and deserving of protection, while also deterring negative actors from taking adverse actions against these communities,” it stated.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would authorize U.S. government funds to be given to aid groups directly providing assistance to displaced Iraqi and Syrian Christians. The bill has yet to clear the Senate. According to In Defense of Christians, thousands of Iraqi Christians have seen no financial aid from the U.S., despite the U.S. having given the Iraqi government millions of dollars for relief efforts.
As of October 2016, the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil has received more than $31 million in funding from Aid to the Church in Need, in addition to support from 16 other Catholic organizations from around the world. The Knights of Columbus have a website dedicated to providing relief to displaced Christians in the Middle East.