An Iraqi Christian woman prays at the Chaldean church in Basra, 1 January 2016

The remaining Christians in the southern Iraqi city of Basra are living in a climate of “deep fear and mistrust” of the Muslim majority, despite recent attempts to promote inter-religious harmony, according to Al-Monitor.

In September, for instance, an Armenian organisation helped to erect a statue of the Virgin Mary, who Muslims also revere, in the city. Then on 9 November, an Iraqi Christian served Shia Muslims as they marched to the shrine of Imam Hussein in the city of Karbala, 500km northwest of Basra.

Tony Sarkisian, head of the Basra Armenians Organization for Relief and Development, explained: “The message conveyed by acts of solidarity symbolises national unity and coexistence among Muslims and Christians.

“The donations collected for the project of placing the statue were mostly from Muslims, and the project workers were mostly from Muslims hailing from Basra. The statue itself was sculpted by a Muslim sculptor.”

Sheikh Abbas al-Fadli, head of the Basra Tribes and Components Committee, added: “The Muslims of Basra – like its Christians – sanctify the Virgin Mary, who is venerated in Islam.”

However, the response from Christians in Basra has been one of fear, with Al-Monitor saying that “in light of the threats of extremists over recent years, Christians in Basra lack confidence in the local authorities for securing their safety”.

Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Habib Hermes told Al-Monitor the statue could lead to “undesirable consequences… If a malicious person tried to harm this statue, the relationship between the different spectrums of the people of Basra would be destabilised.

“…About 90% of Basra’s Christians have left Iraq since 2003, and only 350 families remain.”

As World Watch Monitor reported earlier this month, Basra is set to open a new Catholic primary school next September, the first new Christian school in Iraq since 1974.

“In the last few years [Christians] have abandoned the south in huge numbers… That is why we have decided to invest all our efforts in helping the [Christian] community,” said the Chaldean Archbishop of Basra, Alhava Habib Jajou.

He said the school will be open to all faiths to “improve relations with Muslim families”. Teaching staff will be both Muslim and Christian.