In late March, five Britons, two Americans, and a Canadian traveled to one of the world’s unlikeliest vacation destinations: Iraq. The tour group spent 17 days exploring war-ravaged cities like Basra, Najaf, Baghdad, and other historic areas in the region known as the “cradle of civilization.”
Speaking with BBC reporters at the conclusion of their trip, the tourists seemed bothered more by the lack of hot water at some of their hotels than by having to negotiate security checkpoints or the possibility of terrorist attacks. “It never occurred to me to think it was a risk,” said vacationer Bridget Jones, a 77-year-old archaeologist from London.
Though a handful of adventuresome western tourists may not presage the renewal of Iraq’s (once lucrative) tourism industry, it is one of the more conspicuous signs of improving conditions there.
By most measures, Iraq is safer and more secure today than at any point since the United States and coalition forces launched Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. Attacks from insurgents have decreased to their lowest level since August 2003, and there has been a 90 percent decrease in such attacks since June 2007, when the US troop surge helped turn the war effort around.
As Raymond T. Odierno, Commanding General of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, told reporters in May, “We continue to see overall levels of violence at or near the lowest level since the summer of 2003 inside of Iraq.”
Yet, paradoxically, as overall violence has declined drastically, targeted attacks against Christians have increased. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq, these attacks began to escalate seriously in 2006 and continue today.
In fact, as Christians increasingly are subject to intimidation, extortion, kidnapping, rape, and murder, words like “extinction” and “religious cleansing” are being used to describe the plight of Iraq’s Christians by those who know the situation best. Pope Benedict has said Iraq’s Christians are experiencing an “authentic martyrdom.”
Christianity has been in Iraq since the Apostle Thomas headed east in the year 35. The majority of Iraq’s Christians are Chaldean Catholics; most others belong to either the Syrian Orthodox Church or the Assyrian Church of the East. Iraq’s Christians are the last people to speak Aramaic, Jesus’ language, as their primary language. Chaldo-Assyrians represent Iraq’s third largest ethnic group, after Arabs and Kurds.
Like other autonomous eastern Catholic churches, the Chaldean Catholic Church maintains full communion with Rome but retains its own theological, liturgical, and canonical traditions. It is under the jurisdiction of its own patriarch, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly.
FLEEING THE COUNTRY
The 1987 census recorded 1.4 million Christians in Iraq out of a total population of roughly 17 million. There were approximately 1.1 million Christians in Iraq at the outset of the war in 2003, including about 800,000 Catholics. Since then, one third to one half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country, while another 100,000 have been driven from their homes as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
The war itself has prompted many Iraqis to flee the country, but Iraq’s Christians have fled at a much higher rate than the overall population. Though Christians constitute less than 4 percent of Iraq’s population, they make up about 40 percent of its refugees.
The mass exodus of Iraq’s Christians is a result of the severe persecution they have suffered at the hands of Muslim extremists. Dozens of churches have been bombed, while others have been desecrated and looted. Crucifixes have been torn down and hosts trampled and destroyed. Priests have been abducted, then ransomed or killed. Since the outset of the war, hundreds of Christians have been murdered in Iraq because of their faith.
Religious persecution has been especially severe for Christian women, who have been threatened with rape and forced to convert to Islam. Many Christians are forced to pay the jizya, an Islamic tax levied on non-Muslims for “protection” by local extremist Muslim groups. Attacks and threats against Iraq’s Christians constitute what Cardinal Delly has called “open persecution as in the early centuries of the Church.”
Last October saw perhaps the most concentrated attacks on Christians, in the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second most populous city. Early in the month, hundreds of Christians marched ahead of provincial elections to protest inadequate representation on local councils. In response, al Qaeda distributed leaflets and made phone calls in Christian neighborhoods giving residents an ultimatum: pay the jizya, promptly leave the area, convert to Islam, or be killed.
Muslim terrorists then embarked on a three-week campaign of terror, murdering 14 Christians, bombing at least three Christians’ homes, and vandalizing many others. Churches were attacked, and there were numerous incidents of harassment. The surge in violence prompted about half of Mosul’s Christians, nearly 13,000 people, to flee to other cities or to nearby countries like Syria. The series of October attacks followed the February 2008 kidnapping and murder of Mosul Archbishop Paulus Faraj Rahho, along with his bodyguards and driver. Conditions scarcely have improved since the October attacks. In May, the Reverend Jean Benjamin Sleiman, archbishop of Baghdad, told the New York Times, “I fear the extinction of Christianity in Iraq and the Middle East.”
There are several important reasons why the situation has deteriorated for Iraq’s Christians, even as conditions have improved overall.
One reason was that, as Louis Sako, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, told the Catholic News Agency in April, “under Saddam’s regime we had security but no freedom. Today we have freedom but the problem is security.”
To find out what Iraq was like for Christians during Saddam’s regime, which began in 1979, I interviewed Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America. Kassab told me that there were tight restrictions on the publication of religious materials and that Christians could not promote their religion on the radio or on television. Still, at least in the early years of Saddam’s regime, Christians could practice their faith in relative security.
But, according to Kassab, in the final decade of his rule, Saddam “became very Islamist. He forced clergy to go to war and fight against their will and tried to push Christians to become members of his Baath Party.” Saddam even made it illegal to give babies biblical names. During Saddam’s rule, some 300,000 Christians fled Iraq, even as the country’s overall population doubled.
After toppling Saddam Hussein and the Baath Party from power, the United States and coalition forces were left with only extreme Islamists from Shiite
parties, which took control of most of Southern Iraq. That happened with the consent of the American government, which quickly saw that any thoughts of creating a Jeffersonian democracy on the Euphrates were premature at best.
Explaining the government’s backing of extremist Muslims in Iraq, former CIA analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht told Newsweek in March, “What you have to realize is that the objective is to defeat bin ladenism, and you have to start the evolution. Moderate Muslims are not the answer. Shiite clerics and Sunni fundamentalists are our salvation from future 9/11s.”
OPEN SEASON ON CHRISTIANS
With a hard-line Shiite government in place, it was open season on Iraq’s Christians. As Chaldean leaders expressed in a letter to other Christian denominations last October, “it seems that Iraq is one step closer to becoming an Islamic state intolerant of non-Muslims.”
With Muslim fundamentalists installed in the new government, Christians became targets because they often owned or worked in liquor stores, video stores, and beauty parlors and sold other goods prohibited by Islamic law. Christian children and women in Iraq have been murdered or had acid thrown in their faces for wearing western clothing. Many Christian women wear Muslim garb in order not to be conspicuous.
Christians also became targets because many Iraqi Muslims framed the American-led invasion as a modern Christian crusade against Islam and accused Iraqi Christians of being sympathetic to the western occupiers.
It is ironic that Iraq’s Christians are accused of collaborating with “crusading” US forces, since a chief complaint of Iraqi Christians is that American forces have done little to protect them in the latter’s efforts to placate the Muslim majority. The American military has always been sensitive to the notion that special attention to Christians would play into the hands of the insurgent propagandists.
As Cardinal Delly said in 2007, “Christians are killed, chased out of their homes before the very eyes of those who are supposed to be responsible for their safety.” The day after the body of Archbishop Rahho was discovered last year, Bishop Ibrahim N. Ibrahim of the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle, based in Southfield, Michigan, placed part of the blame on the American military, saying, “No one is defending us. They are killing Christians because they are Christians. Somebody has to be responsible. Since the Americans are occupying Iraq, they have the responsibility of the security of every Iraqi, and in the first place minorities. I am not saying the Christians only—but they are doing nothing for them.”
Tellingly, in late March when the US State Department released its annual list of the world’s most severe violators of religious freedom, Iraq was left off the list. The list consisted of Burma, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan. These nations were labeled “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs), the worst designation a country can receive for religious violations and one that can result in a variety of US actions, including economic sanctions.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which works closely with the State Department, had recommended that Iraq also be designated as a CPC “in view of the ongoing severe abuses of religious freedom and based on the Iraqi government’s toleration of these abuses as described in this report, particularly abuses against all of Iraq’s most vulnerable and smallest religious minorities.” The report described the situation for Iraq’s Chaldo-Assyrian Christians as “especially dire.”
The commission also stated, “the lack of effective government action to protect [religious minorities] from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities.”
The State Department granted a waiver to Iraq (Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan were also granted waivers) arguing that terrorists, not the Iraqi government, were persecuting religious minorities in Iraq.
But in fact the Iraqi government has played a role in institutionalizing discrimination against religious minorities.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has talked often about the right of Iraqi Christians to “live in safety and dignity.” But Iraq’s Christians have little political representation to help make that professed right a reality.
Just one Christian was elected to Iraq’s 275 member parliament in 2005. And in September 2008, the Iraqi parliament dropped Article 50 from its Provincial Elections Law, which had set aside seven seats on provincial councils for minorities. The parliament said the article was dropped because it was impossible to know the size of minority groups and thus how many seats they should be allocated.
American constitutional advisors worked with the Iraqi government in its creation of a constitution. In order to gain Shiite support for the demands of Kurdish and Sunni Muslims, the American advisors accepted provisions that diminished the rights of non-Muslims.
So the Iraqi constitution, ratified in 2005, guarantees religious freedom and rights to all people but states unambiguously that “Islam is the official religion of the state and is a foundation source of legislation” and, “No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.”
WILL THEY RETURN?
It is the institutional discrimination against religious minorities that may keep Iraq’s Christians from returning to their homeland. About the constitutional article declaring Islam the official state religion, Kassab says, “We know that means sharia law. If the constitution is unable to protect its people, who is going to protect them? And that is where the problem is. The constitution needs to be re-written in order to address and recognize the needs of all ethnic and religious groups in Iraq.” But Kassab does not believe the constitution will be re-written.
Kassab predicts that once the 135,000 American soldiers still serving in Iraq leave, “chaotic things will take place… the country is going to go to shambles for sure, no doubt about it.” All American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by 2012, but that date could be moved up to mid-2010 if a January national referendum results in a vote to have all troops leave.
Perhaps it was a harbinger of more violence when in late June—just days before the June 30 deadline for all coalition soldiers to leave urban centers under a security pact signed by Baghdad and Washington last year—a series of terrorist attacks erupted across Iraq, leaving more than 100 people dead.
With a new Iraqi government having been established that discriminates against Christians, and with the American government inattentive to the plight of Iraqi Christians, it is little wonder so many Christians have fled their ancestral homeland.
A central debate among the estimated two million Iraqis who have left Iraq concerns when and whether they should return to their homeland. Most have immigrated to neighboring countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. Tens of thousands have settled in the United States, primarily in Detroit, San Diego, Chicago, and Phoenix. Kassab estimates that the Chaldean Federation has helped settle about 25,000 Iraqi refugees, mainly in Michigan.
Despite the challenges faced by Iraqi refugees in America, including difficulty finding employment in the current economic climate, most, according to Kassab, “insist not to go back… because they don’t have the feeling or the sense of security. They have terrible memories, they’ve been evicted from their homes, forced to leave in a mass exodus, and I don’t think the situation is right for them to go back to Iraq.”
Kassab echoes the sentiments of Bishop Ibrahim, who told the Catholic News Service earlier this year that “no one in the United States will go back to Iraq or the Middle East because the future for children, education, and life is better here.”
Even though the Iraqi government began offering one million Iraqi dinars (about $865) to each returning displaced family, less than 5 percent of displaced Iraqis have returned. Kassab says most displaced Chaldeans would like to return to Iraq. “This is our ancestral land,” he explains. “But at this point, Christians in Iraq do not fare well.”
When Pope Benedict XVI visited the Middle East in May, he encouraged Christians to remain in the region in order to “maintain the Church’s presence.” As discrimination and persecution against Iraq’s Christians continues, and is institutionalized, heeding that exhortation is becoming increasingly difficult for one of the world’s oldest Christian communities.