ALQOSH, Iraq – Over the past decade, Iraqi Christians have fled repeatedly to this ancient mountainside village, seeking refuge from violence, then returning home when the danger eased. Now they are doing it again as Islamic militants rampage across northern Iraq, but this time few say they ever want to go back to their homes.
The flight is a new blow to Iraq's dwindling Christian community, which is almost as old as the religion itself but which has already been devastated since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. During the past 11 years, at least half of the country's Christian population has fled the country, according to some estimates, to escape frequent attacks by Sunni Muslim militants targeting them and their churches.
Iraq was estimated to have more than 1 million Christians before the 2003 invasion and topping of Saddam Hussein. Now church officials estimate only 450,000 remain within Iraq borders. Militants have targeted Christians in repeated waves in Baghdad and the north. The Chaldean Catholic cardinal was kidnapped in 2008 by extremists and killed. Churches around the country have been bombed repeatedly.
The exodus from Mosul — a Sunni-majority city that during the American presence in Iraq was an al-Qaida stronghold — has been even more dramatic. From a pre-2003 population of around 130,000 Christians, there were only about 10,000 left before the Islamic State fighters overran the city a week ago.