At the end of June I was asked to speak in Washington, DC at a Coptic Solidarity conference. I receive similar invitations quite often these days, because while I am a dreadfully inadequate spokesman for their cause, I do speak of the suffering of Arab Christians whenever I can. Islam’s war on Christianity, in fact, is the subject of my forthcoming book. It’s a complex issue, but in brief we can say that the core of the problem is that numerous Koranic verses call for Christians to be treated as, at best, second-class citizens, and sometimes to be treated as direct enemies and threats to Islam. As such, the more authentically Muslim the state, the worse it is for Christians.
Which brings us to what has happened in Iraq, which will be seen by future historians as one of the great tragedies of ethnic cleansing, and should be of lasting importance to the rest of us who follow Christ. The point about Saddam Hussein and his government was that it wasn’t especially religious, it was Arab nationalist and secular, and it saw Islamic fundamentalism as its greatest enemy. Saddam himself was a monstrous figure and his government was oppressive and offensive, but Iraq was the most literate, stable, and—if you like—civilized country in the Arab world. Saddam could and should have been removed relatively easily, but instead the Americans and their friends devastated the entire country, eliminated the governing class, caused chaos, and opened the door to the very Islamic fundamentalists that Saddam had kept down and who detest Christ, Christians, and Christianity.
Like it or not, the venomous persecution and subsequent hemorrhage of Christians from Iraq is a direct consequence of American and western foreign policy, initiated by the first President Bush and completed by his son. Iraq’s instability and chaos led directly to the Syrian uprising, which, while in its inchoate stages, was genuinely democratic but soon fell under the leadership and dominance of Islamists who want a Syria, and an entire Middle East, free of Christians. President Obama is no better than his Republican predecessors, of course, and he has flirted and is still flirting with the idea of actually supporting the Muslim fanatics who would slaughter any Christians they encounter. Bush tried to be a friend to Christians but failed miserably, Obama has no interest at all in being friendly to Christians in the first place.
The result of all this is that around 80 percent of the Christians of Iraq and Syria have been forced to flee their homeland, and the numbers are likely to increase. Some have gone to Jordan, but there is no guarantee that the Hashemite royal family will remain in power. Others flee to North America and Europe. Some of them even ran away to Iran—a repugnant regime that persecutes Christians but is still not as dangerous as modern Iraq. The result is that the towns, cities, and villages where the founders of Christendom lived and prayed are or will be entirely Muslim. Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but that’s quite a battle honor for the US military.
It makes me genuinely angry that so many conservative Evangelicals and right-wing Catholics in the United States and even in my homeland of Canada were so eager to fight a war in Iraq. Their naive bellicosity caused so much irreparable harm and has led to so much pain for Christians who have held on to their faith through more than a thousand years of struggle and persecution. I am genuinely ashamed when I meet with my Christian brothers from the region, and it humbles me that they are so forgiving of us in the west.
I don’t know why the war in Iraq was fought, but I’m sure I will be inundated with theories and conspiracies about oil, Israel, freemasons, and the like. I don’t really care about that, but I do care that the grace-filled stream of continuity from the early Christians is now coming to a halt, now drying up in the sand and dust of Iraq and Syria. An old man, his hair white and his eyes moist, took me aside at the Washington conference and asked me to sit down with him as, in his words, his “legs were weak and an old man has suddenly replaced the young boy.” He smiled, stared at me and told a story.
“I have seen good and bad men rule my country of Iraq, but most of them bad. Saddam came in and he spoke of helping everybody, but became just another ruler. But he didn’t hurt us Christians, even protected us sometimes. We were Arabs and Iraqis, and nobody was allowed to deny that. Then came the war, and suddenly there were Christians everywhere. Americans in uniforms and with guns. All seemed to be Christian, but they treated us all as if we were foreigners in our own land, thought we were all Muslim, didn’t seem to understand that we were worshipping Jesus before their country even existed. My Muslim neighbors said, ‘these are your Christians, this is your Jesus, this is what you want for us all?’ It was over, we knew it.” And then he cried.
I love the United States and I think that it is the most moral and righteous super-power in history. But as G.K. Chesterton said, no patriot would ever proclaim my country, right or wrong—it’s like saying my mother, drunk or sober. So there are occasions when we have to criticize. And what we must never forget is that our faith, our Catholicism, our relationship with the Church and with Christ come before our politics and our nationhood. We were wrong in Iraq, and it’s doubtful we can ever put matters right. Hold our heads in shame and ask the people of Iraq—and God almighty—to forgive us. Jesus still rules Iraq as he does the entire world, but his followers will not be there to know. The churches are emptying in Iraq, Mass is no longer celebrated in many of the town and cities. God weeps, and so do his people in the Middle East.