Date: December 26, 2017
By Michael Ireland, Chief Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (ANS – Dec. 26, 2017) -- Just days shy of Christmas, dozens of Iraqi children filled the stage at Baghdad's Alliance Evangelical Church to practice "Jingle Bells" and rehearse their Nativity play.
They are excited and happy. Even though, for many, this will be the last Christmas in their ancient homeland, reports Hollie McKay of Fox News.
"The majority of Christians have left and we are, too," one of the children says.
McKay writes those words have become an incessant refrain to Rev. Joseph Francis Joseph, president of Alliance churches in Iraq. There has been little he can do but watch as the country’s Christian population plunges -- from 1.5 million before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 to about 200,000 today – the result of systematic persecution, plus the genocidal onslaught of ISIS in 2014.
"I tell these families I wish for them to fight and stay, but it is their decision. We Christians feel we have no rights here," Joseph told Fox News during a recent interview in his church office. "How to save our people?"
In her report for Fox News, McKay says Joseph doesn’t have the answer - and no longer tries to come up with one. Fatigue and defeat have engulfed Baghdad's Christian community, accentuated by a creeping fear that not even their faith can keep them safe.
"All of us priests and pastors have been talking to the U.N. and international community, but I feel there is no solution to our problems," Joseph said. "When the Saddam regime fell down, we all thought it would get better, but it only became worse."
In fact, says McKay, after Hussein’s government toppled in 2003, eight new evangelical churches quickly sprang up in Baghdad - including Rev. Joseph’s Alliance Evangelical.
But some of the new evangelical churches have closed their doors, due to low attendance and a lack of financial resources. Joseph has seen his own Sunday Mass drop from 400 to less than 300. And the number of children attending Sunday School dwindle from 150 to just 50.
Eight Baghdad churches closed in just one month earlier this year, according to Jeff King, president of International Christian Concern, McKay states in her report.
At another place of worship, Our Lady of Deliverance Syriac Catholic Church, memories remain raw of a 2010 terrorist attack that killed close to 60 people, as well as another attack that killed 78 members of another congregation. The Our Lady attack was carried out by suicide jihadists at a Sunday evening Mass.
"Since then, all the churches must have these now," said Uday Samir Slawa, 37, a soft-spoken bodyguard at the church, as he motioned to the high concrete walls that protect the church. "We are scared here. We are destroyed here. There is no future."
McKay goes on to report there is little future for the inhabitants of a camp for more than 100 displaced Christian families in the middle of Baghdad, Camp Virgin Mary. The camp, just off one of the city's crooked dirt tracks, consists of nearly 150 blue and white trailers.
The families there were forced from their homes when ISIS extremists seized Mosul. A visitor readily picks up on the camp’s solemnity -- and sadness.
"I have been asking myself, ‘Should I leave Iraq?’ The answer is yes and I feel very sad for that," Fryal Abbo said in a whisper. As she spoke, her eyes welled with tears and she clutched the hand of one of her children, 17-year-old Najma.
Abbo, in her 40s, is dressed in all black. Her husband, Amir Abbo, was one of several killed two days before last Christmas in deadly attacks on Christian-owned shops that sold alcohol. He had been working at the shop less than a month.
Since his death, Abbo has had no source of income -- nor any sense of justice. "We have no information which insurgent did this," Abbo said. "We Christians didn't want anything. Only peace.”
Others at Camp Virgin Mary tell similar stories, McKay says.
Ena Kromy, 77, clutched a cross and a photograph of her son as she sat in the sunshine. She, too, was dressed all in black. Her son was shot in the head at a restaurant where he worked eight years ago. The restaurant, too, was targeted because it served alcohol.
Kromy said the shock of his death killed her husband a few months later. "My son died from his head, and my husband from his heart," Kromy sobbed.
Recently, Kromy packed up and returned to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, after it was recaptured from ISIS militants. But she discovered her house had been destroyed in the fighting. So she returned to Camp Virgin Mary, with its mixture of lingering fear and desperation to flee Iraq altogether.
"The government tells us to go back, but I will never go back to that home,” said Nehla Kheder, who fled Mosul on foot with her family. All they had were the clothes on her back and their identification cards.
“We can’t go there and we can’t stay here," she said. "There is no such thing as a home anywhere here for us."
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay.
Photo captions: 1) Children sing "Jingle Bells" and rehearse a Nativity play at the Alliance Evangelical Church in Baghdad. (Hollie McKay/FoxNews.com). 2) A prayer book at Alliance Evangelical Church in Baghdad (Hollie McKay/FoxNews.com). 3) Fryal Abbo, with her teen daughter, Najma, mourns the death of her husband. He was killed for selling alcohol in a Christian shop two days before Christmas last year. (Hollie McKay/FoxNews.com). 4) Children playing in Baghdad's Camp Virgin Mary, which is for displaced Christians. (Hollie McKay/FoxNews.com). 5) Michael Ireland of ASSIST News Service.
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Chief Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister, and an award-winning local cable-TV program host/producer who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ANS since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. You may follow Michael on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/