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Eight Baghdad churches close amid decline of Christian population in Iraq

(Reuters/Thaier Al-Sudani)Iraqi Christians attend a mass on Christmas at St. Joseph Chaldean church in Baghdad, Iraq December 25, 2016.

Eight Christian churches in Baghdad have permanently closed their doors as the Christian population in Iraq continues to decline due to fear of persecution.

International Christian Concern (ICC) reported that the Vatican decided to close down the eight churches in May 2017 after nearly seven years of low to no attendance.

Christians represented 10 percent of the Iraqi population at the start of the 21st Century. But they began fleeing the region due to the steady stream of repression, conflict displacement and persecution.

A former resident of Baghdad noted that the exodus of Christians can be divided into three different stages.

"The first was from 2005-2007, [the] second was in 2010 when some extremists attacked [a] church during Sunday mass and the third stage was in 2014 when ISIS attacked [the] Nineveh Plain," the former resident told ICC.

Sectarian conflict between the Sunni and Shia groups began in 2005, but Sunni extremists soon started targeting the Christian community as well. It was common for Christians to receive threats from the extremists in the form of an envelope containing bullets and messages promising bloodshed and death.

"In early 2006, we forcibly left our house because we got an envelope tell[ing] us, 'You have to leave within 48 hours, all you have to take is your clothes, if you t[ake] anything else we will kill you," Seza, a former Baghdad resident recounted, noting that she still has the envelope and the three bullets she received from a gang.

The second exodus began after six suicide bombers carried out an attack on a Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad in October 2010 during a Sunday mass, killing 58 Christians and injuring 78.

The third displacement of Christians from Iraq was directly related to the rise of the Islamic State terror group in 2014. The militants have killed and enslaved thousands of religious minorities and drove hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and villages in northern Iraq. Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the European Parliament have both declared the acts committed by the terror group against Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities as "genocide."

ICC, which reports on the persecution of Christians around the world, reiterated that ISIS is not solely responsible for the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq. The human rights organization noted that Christians in the region have experienced various forms of persecution and discrimination from various forms of perpetrators in the past 15 years. The advocacy group is urging other Christians to pray and support the estimated 230,000 believers that remain in Iraq.

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