The recent church attacks have accelerated the exodus, and a charity is praising Ankara for allowing refugees to stay for years until they are able to find a new host country.
Iraqi Christians fleeing to Turkey
ISTANBUL // When extremists in Baghdad told Hadeer Khawaja, a Christian in Iraq, to leave the country, a friend suggested he should get a visa from Turkey. So together with several members of his family, Mr Khawaja went to Istanbul, the metropolis of a Muslim country that has become a haven for a small, but growing number of Iraqi Christians.
"We received a threat by some people" in Iraq, Mr Khawaja, a 37, an engineer who works as a volunteer at a Christian charity in Istanbul, said this week. "There is no security. Sometimes when you go out in Baghdad, you cannot even be sure that you can return home," Mr Khawaja said. "They are killing Christians every day in Iraq."
In his new job, Mr Khawaja meets many other Iraqi refugees who have been flocking to Turkey and who sometimes bring news from Baghdad, most of it grim. "Just the other week, I spoke with some people here who told me our house in Baghdad had been bombed," he said. "It's gone."
There are about 3,800 Christian Iraqi refugees in Turkey at the moment, according to the Chaldean-Assyrian Association, or Kader, the charity where Mr Khawaja works. Many more have fled to Arab-speaking neighbours of Iraq, but Turkey is attracting a growing number of them lately despite the language barrier. Since the attacks on churches in Baghdad earlier this month, 300 to 400 Iraqi Christians have knocked on the association's door in Istanbul. "There were two families last week," Mr Khawaja said. "One had nine members, the other 13."
While most Iraqi Christians do not see Turkey as their permanent new home but want to move on to the United States, Canada, Australia or Europe, Ankara lets the refugees in and allows them to stay for an average of two to three years before they find a country willing to take them, said Francois Yakan, the Patriarchal Vicar and leader of the Chaldean-Assyrian Church in Turkey. Most Iraqi Christians are Chaldeans, who regard the Pope as their spiritual head even though their rites differ from those of Catholics.
"Injustice is being done to Christians" in Iraq, Father Yakan said. "We do not know who does it. All we know is that Christians leave Iraq and go to Turkey, Syria, Jordan or Lebanon." He said there were 1.2 million Christians in Iraq before the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. "Today there are less than 500,000."
Father Yakan, a Turkish national who runs the Kader charity, praised Ankara's attitude towards the refugees. Several European countries, which often criticise Turkey for the way it treats its Christians, have taken in a small number of Iraqi refugees in the past, but those initiatives were mostly symbolic and "for the media", Father Yakan said.
When Kader was confronted with the steep increase in Iraqi Christians seeking refuge in Turkey after the attacks this month, offers of support poured in from Turks, but not from Europeans, Father Yakan said. "Muslim associations and Turkish authorities asked us if there was anything we needed," he said. "But Europe? No."
In co-operation with Turkish aid groups and Turkish authorities, Kader is trying to help the refugees by providing advice to get registered with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR, by providing translators for hospital visits and by handing out food cards, medicine and clothes.
"They come by plane or by bus, and all they have is one suitcase," Father Yakan said about the refugees. Financed by contributions from international aid organisations and by individual donations, Kader does not help only Iraqi Christians, but people from all religions and countries, he said. Turkey, a major transit hub for people from Asia and Africa trying to get to the West, does not recognise refugees from non-European countries but relies on the UNHCR to find a place for them.
The Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants, or Asam, a Turkish aid group that has an office next door to Kader and has been working closely with the Chaldean organisation, is offering English language courses to refugees. This week, four young men from Afghanistan, Congo, Somalia and Sudan sat together with an American volunteer teacher who was explaining the concept behind the word 'wish' to them. "I wish I find a good country," one of the men said.
While Turkey may be unwilling to provide the refugees with a new home, authorities are ready to find pragmatic solutions for those who have fled to the country, Father Yakan said. "About a month ago, the education ministry told all state schools to accept refugee children free of charge," he said. "That is a very important development for us."
That kind of attitude is not the only reason Turkey has become an attractive destination for many Christian refugees from Iraq, Mr Khawaja said. "We can't trust the Arab countries, their politics change. Turkey is better," he said.
Mr Khawaja said many Iraqis wanted to go on to European countries but had to give up their plan because the Europeans did not let them in. "So they go to the United States, because they don't have another choice."
For Mr Khawaja, the choice was clear from the start. His mother and his sister went to the United States four years ago, and the rest of the family is eager to join them there.
That dream may be about to come true soon. "I just received a call, I have to get my medical check-up," Mr Khawaja said. "They accepted my file." The plane ticket to the US would be the next step. "I hope to celebrate Christmas with my family. Today is my lucky day."