Why Syrian and Iraqi Christians eye different futures

Iraqi Christians who decide to flee the Middle East feel they have no future there, whereas Syrian Christians wish to return home because they believe they have a future there under President Bashar Al-Assad.

That is the view of human rights lawyer and genocide expert Ewelina Ochab, who has interviewed Christians from Iraq who have fled to Kurdistan or become refugees in Jordan.

She cited a report by the US-based Heritage Foundation, a think-tank, which found that Syrian Christians made up tiny percentages of asylum seekers registered with the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt – 1.5 per cent, 0.2 per cent, 0.3 per cent, and 0.1 per cent, respectively.

However, it found that over 16 per cent of registered Iraqi refugees in the Middle East and North Africa were Christians, and Christians constituted almost 29 per cent of all Iraqis resettled to the US between 2011 and 2016.

The UNHCR says it does not collect data on religious affiliation because it holds firmly to a policy of non-discrimination, so precise figures are hard to quantify. However, this data appears to challenge the narrative that the UNHCR is sidelining Christian asylum-seekers.

“Despite the fact that Syria and Iraq have been struggling with humanitarian crises, the reality of Christian minorities in both countries may be worlds apart,” Ms Ochab wrote.

She pointed out that Iraqi Christians have faced enormous pressures for longer than Syrian Christians – since 2003, when the US-led invasion, on its mission to topple Saddam Hussein, destroyed the country’s infrastructure and Christians were scapegoated in the chaos that followed. She said those who have fled their homes for Kurdistan were generally waiting to return, while those who had crossed into nearby countries, such as Jordan or Lebanon, sought asylum elsewhere, disillusioned by years of discrimination and persecution.

By contrast, in Syria “Assad is perceived as the defender of Christian minorities,” she said.

However, she suggested Syrian Christians’ outlook could change if Assad were deposed. She continued: “Many Syrian Christians worry that once Assad is gone they will face the same fate as Iraqi Christians suffered after Saddam Hussein’s fall.”

Religious charities working in the Middle East have been facilitating Christian communities returning home. Some 344,000 people from 125 countries have signed a petition started by the charity Open Doors, calling for Syrian and Iraqi Christians to be enabled to return home and live securely. The petition is due to be presented at the UN General Assembly in September.