The World Religion Database estimates that the Christian share of people living in the territory of present-day Iraq dropped from 6.4% in 1900 to 3.8% in 1970 and to about 1% today.
Prior to the current wave of hostilities, the World Religion Database estimated that Christians would make up less than a half percent of Iraq's population by 2050. Given the severity of the ongoing Islamic State attacks, that statistic may be unrealistically high.
Christians are not the only religious minority facing the brutality of the Islamic State. World attention is focused on the plight of the Yazidis, one of Iraq's oldest minority faiths whose belief system is a combination of elements from Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam.
The Islamic State has killed over 500 Yazidis, while 30,000 were besieged in the Sinjar mountains with no food or water, prompting some international responses. The Islamic State has also taken hostage Yazidi women and children, with witnesses claiming the women are being sold or forced into marriage.
* Islamic State The advances of the Islamic State – formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) – in the past months have been shocking. Iraqi government is yet to make any significant gains in its counter-attack. For more on the Islamic State, see the Religion & Geopolitics project of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
A Pew Research survey conducted in 2012 (before the Islamic State gained ground) found that the large majority of Iraq's population (74%) considered unemployment to be a "very large problem" for the country. By contrast, fewer than half of the population (46%) considered conflict between religious groups to be a very large problem.
Majid Jafar, CEO of Crescent Petroleum and founder of the Arab Stabilisation Plan, and Erik Berglof, chief economist for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, argue that the dramatic events now unfolding in Iraq show the need for a coordinated economic plan to offer hope and enhance stability. In particular, they note that the International Labor Organization (ILO) found that the Middle East has the world's highest youth unemployment rate in the world, and it is rising.
This, however, does not mean that social hostilities involving religion are irrelevant. Rather, it highlights the dangers of a system where religion and religious identities become rallying points for other grievances. As the Shia-dominated Iraqi government favors other Shia Muslims -- long the underclass under Saddam Hussein -- this sets up new animosities that are easily grafted onto other issues, such as unemployment, inequality and unmet expectations.
Although not the immediate solution to the current crisis, research shows that protecting religious freedom and the rights of all groups to contribute as equal members of society leads to peace, more inclusive societies and economic competitiveness. Any long term solution to the escalating Iraq crisis that ignores the religious context will miss one of the key elements that gives resiliency to societies and economies - religious freedom.
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Research from the Yearbook of International Religious Demography (Brill, 2014)* shows religious adherents of all faiths are globally on the rise. Continued growth of religious populations appears likely, as they are younger on average than the world’s religiously unaffiliated population.