x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Crisis for Iraq's Christians rends fabric of region

Christian communities in Iraq, some of the oldest in the world, may soon cease to exist. Their history and heritage is important to the region; the future of these communities should be important as well.

Christians and Muslims stood shoulder to shoulder at St Joseph's Cathedral in the capital at the weekend to offer prayers for those killed in an Baghdad church bombing days earlier. It was a picture of unity in a region too often pictured as divided by faith and belief.

The situation in Iraq, where the Christian community is under siege, could not be more different. Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, a leader in the Syrian Orthodox church, made an appeal on Sunday from London that his community, and all Christian communities in Iraq, leave the country. While his is not the only voice speaking for Iraq's Christians, his call follows al Qa'eda's attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, which killed 53. That attack was the reason for the multi-faith prayer service in Abu Dhabi.

Christians are a small number of the 4.7 million Iraqis who fled the country after the 2003 invasion, but still half of them have left. Other religious minorities, notably Yazidis and Bahais, have also been targeted. Communities of Christians in Mosul and Ninevah, some of the oldest in the world, may soon cease to exist. Their history and heritage is important to the region; the future of these communities should be important as well.

Iraq's Christian leaders met in June to call for constitutional amendments to support minority rights and for a security commitment from the government. It is difficult for these grievances, and for those of many others in Iraq, to be heard when there is still no government in place.

That may be changing. Iraq's leaders are in Erbil to discuss a possible power sharing deal in which Nouri al Maliki would likely remain prime minister. The Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani would likely retain the presidency; Iyad Allawi, the leader of the Iraqiyya bloc which won a plurality in the election, may have to settle for a lesser post.

After eight months of wrangling, a national unity government is sorely needed even if its composition leaves something to be desired. The deteriorating security situation in Iraq should be cause for all sides to consider compromise. It is not just the country's beleaguered Christian community that is at stake, but the millennia-old character of Iraq and the Middle East. Time is running out.