Iraq's Christian population has diminished rapidly since the fall of Saddam Hussein, shrinking from more than 1 million in 2003 to about 400,000 today, an Agence France Presse report says. A major reason for the mass exodus has been violence against Christians. More than 60 churches have been attacked. In 2010, al-Qaida massacred 44 worshippers and two priests, leading to a spike in the flow of Christians out of Iraq. Although Christians have not been specifically targeted in the last few years, the ongoing violence still impels many to emigrate.
Louis Sako, patriarch of the Iraq-based Chaldean Church, recently urged Christians to stay in the country, and has gone so far as to criticize Western countries for issuing priority visa to members of the community. The Patriarch is in Rome to meet Pope Francis along with other leaders of the Eastern Rites of the Catholic Church. Sako told Vatican Radio that Iraqi authorities will issue exit visas as part of "a whole strategy to help Christians leave Iraq."
"The Middle East, he said, "is going to empty of Christians."
Pope Francis said after meeting with the patriarchs that the Catholic Church will not accept a Middle East without Christians, calling for "the universal right to lead a dignified life and freely practice one's own faith to be respected."