IRBIL, Iraq — They saw their brethren murdered during Mass and then were bombed in their homes as they mourned. Al-Qaida vowed to hunt them down. Now the Christian community of Iraq, almost as old as the religion itself, is sensing a clear message: It is time to leave.
Since the Oct. 31 bloodbath in their Baghdad church, Iraqi Christians have been fleeing Sunni Muslim extremists who view them as nonbelievers and agents of the West. At a time when Christians in various parts of the Muslim world are feeling pressured, Iraqi Christians are approaching their grimmest Christmas since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 and wondering if they have any future in their native land.
They have suffered repeated violence and harassment since 2003, when the interreligious peace rigidly enforced by Saddam Hussein fell apart. But the attack on Our Lady of Salvation, in which 68 people died, appears to have been a tipping point that has driven many to flee northward to the Kurdish enclave or seek asylum in the U.S. and elsewhere.
What seemed different this time was the way the gunmen brazenly barged onto sacred ground, the subsequent targeting of homes by bombers who clearly knew every Christian address, and the Internet posting in which al-Qaida-linked militants took responsibility for the church attack and vowed a campaign of violence against Christians wherever they are.
Since 2003 no Iraqi religious or ethnic group has escaped violence. Tens of thousands died in bombings and street battles between minority Sunnis and the Shiites who supplanted them in power after Saddam, the longtime dictator, was toppled.
But like many of Iraq's minorities, Christians do not have political clout or militias.
Even before the church attack, thousands of Christians were fleeing abroad. They are more than a third of the 53,700 Iraqis resettled in the United States since 2007, according to State Department statistics.
How many Christians remain in this nation of 29 million is not reliably known.