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Iraq's Last Christians

Christianity first came to Iraq in the first century AD. Iraq's Christians are one of the longest continuous Christian communities in the world. Throughout their long history in the region, they have been persecuted, threatened and massacred many times, but they have always managed to survive as a community. Today however, the two thousand year old presence of Christians in Iraq is in danger of coming to an abrupt and violent end. In 2003, before the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States and its allies, there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, about 5% of the population. Fewer than 400,000 are thought to remain today. In a single decade more than two thirds of Iraq's Christians have fled the country. The majority of Iraq's Christians are Chaldean Catholics, but there are numerous other sects including Assyrians, the Ancient Church of the East, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, Armenian Apostolic and Catholic churches as well as others. In recent years, the Christians of Iraq have been caught in the middle of what is essentially a civil war between the Shiite majority and Sunni Muslim minoriity. Extremists on both sides view the Christians as sympathetic to the West and, as non-Muslims, unworthy of living in an islamic country. As a result, Iraq's Christian community has become a victim of an open and systematic campaign to cleanse the country of its religious minorities.

The Christians who remain in Iraq have for the most part sought refuge in the historic heartland of Iraqi Christianity the Nineveh Plain and parts of Kurdistan in the north of the country. In the relative security of these areas the Christian communities have concentrated into pockets and attempt to preserve their culture, traditions and religious heritage despite the threats and their dwindling numbers. Iraqi Christians speak a dialect of Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Christians displaced from other parts of Iraq to Kurdistan are having a difficult time in finding work and starting a new life in the north because they speak Arabic as a second language, not Kurdish. The linguistic barrier, prejudices, expensive rents, high prices and an on-going sense of insecurity continue to force Christians to leave the country, often to the United States, Canada, Sweden and Australia.

JB Russell has been documenting Iraq for over a decade and has also photographed Christians fleeing to Lebanon and to the United States, where large numbers are building a new life. This part of his long-term coverage of Iraq tells the story of the country's remaining Christians, their efforts to maintain their traditions and presence in post-war Iraq and the beginnings of their exiles as they flee the chaos in a country which has been their homeland for two millennia.
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