The Desperate Plight of Iraqi Christians
By Rev. Bassam M. Madany
Several factors have contributed to the world’s neglect of the condition of Iraqi Christians. The Iraqi government for instance has recently been preoccupied with other matters, one being negotiating the terms of a treaty with the United States which attempts to resolve the issues surrounding the presence of United States military forces in the country. Another factor is the truism that people in general have trouble seeing beyond their own interests. Spectacular events do tend to get their attention especially when the media cover them 24/7. Such was the case with the recent terrorist attack in Mumbai, Another reason for the scant attention given to the suffering Christians of Iraq is that few people in America or other Western democracies care much about the issue. The United States has recently gone through an interminably long presidential election cycle which overshadowed most other world events. A serious economic downturn has occurred which is affecting everyone. And now there is another shocking scandal surrounding the Illinois Governor dominating the news. Sadly, the plight of Iraqi Christians is low on the radar screen of the self-absorbed world community. Yet, one can be thankful that not all have forgotten the newly dispossessed Eastern Christians. Christians around the world are becoming increasingly concerned and trying to do something about it.
To draw attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians at this particular time does not imply that persecution is a new phenomenon for Eastern Christians. Ever since the invasion of the Levant, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and North Africa by Arab-Islamic forces, the condition of the native Christian and Jewish populations has been very precarious. The Islamic invaders instituted Shari’a Law in the lands they conquered and the followers of Christianity and Judaism were subjected to draconian measures meant to “humble” them, and restrict their religious and civil freedoms. So the problem for Christians living under Islam has been present for 1400 years. But now in the 21st century, with the marvels and speed of world-wide communication, especially the Internet, more people are becoming aware of the persecution of Christians in the Arab world, and specifically in Iraq.
On Friday November 14, the daily online Internet site Elaph published an article with this title, The Responsibility of the International Community for the Fate of Iraqi Christians (source). Included here is a translation of the entire text, followed with my comments.
“The world stands helpless as it witnesses the unfolding of another bloody chapter in the ‘Tragedy of Eastern Christians.’ This time, it involves the Christians of Iraq, most of whom are Chaldean Assyrians, the original inhabitants of the country. They are the victims of organized campaigns of ethnic-religious cleansing in their historic homeland. To date, thousands of Christians have been murdered, and more than 250,000 have been forced to seek refuge outside Iraq.
“Just as in all of the previous blood-drenched chapters that began around a century ago during the colonialism of the Ottoman Empire, the perpetrators have been Muslims, whether Turks or Kurds, Arabs, or Foreigners. They have all participated in the decline of the Christian presence in the East. The Christian community has almost completely disappeared from the Arabian Peninsula, as well as in North Africa. In some places such as Turkey and Iran, the Christian presence is getting smaller and smaller, and is threatened with total extinction due to political, social, economic, and religious factors. Against the backdrop of such ethnic and religious tyranny inflicted upon them in their historic homelands, Eastern Christians have been forced to seek refuge and safe havens in other countries. No longer available to them in the lands of their birth are even the barest rights that are given to the Muslim inhabitants. Their dreams of becoming citizens of modern secular states are being shattered everywhere.
“No doubt the American invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, increased the deterioration of the security situation in the area, and added to the festering ethnic and religious animosities allowing the Islamist movements to concentrate their attacks on the Eastern Christians of Iraq. Many who are very concerned about their fate wonder whether it will be similar to that of the Iraqi Jews who have disappeared from Iraq because of the severe discriminatory measures taken against them after the rise of Israel. With respect to the ordeal of Eastern Christians, the French author, Annie Laurent,* predicted after the 9-11 events ‘that Christians living in the Muslim world would become martyrs on account of their faith, and victims of the radical Islamist aggression.’
“It is true that the number of Muslims killed in Iraq far exceeds the number of Christians murdered in the country. However, Arab (Shi’ite and Sunni) and Kurdish militias are fighting for political and economic privileges for their own communities. And Christians are being murdered even though they are not involved in these disputes; and were not responsible for the American presence in their land. Iraqi Christians are killed because of their faith, while we witness almost total silence from the Arabs. A few voices against such persecution are raised from the ranks of liberal intellectuals. The silence from the majority Arab population is explained as an undeclared Iraqi, Arab, and Islamic plan for bringing about a forced migration of Eastern Christians from the area. Reports indicate that the mass murders and expulsion of the Christians of Mosul and other Iraqi cities occur under the very eyes of the American and Iraqi armies, and in collaboration with some militant Iraqi groups.
“We have doubts about the seriousness of the American and European position vis-à-vis Eastern Christians. The reaction of the ‘International Community’ to the murder and forced migration of Mosul’s Christians has been limited to issuing words of regret and condemnation, and asking for aid to be provided to the dispossessed. In spite of the size and well-documented catastrophe that has befallen Iraqi Christians; the great powers have not called for the convening of an International Conference to deal with their cause, or for measures to be taken against the repetition of the massacres and abductions that took place in Iraq. No call was made for securing a safe area for these rejected people. On the other hand, we are fully aware that the ‘International Community’ took specific measures during the 1990s, to help the Kurds in the northern part of Iraq, by preventing the forces of Saddam Hussein from pursuing them, and by establishing a safe zone for them. Recently, Britain, a traditional ally of America, refused to even consider the idea of coming to the aid of Iraqi Christians. The British minister responsible for the Middle East declared at a joint press conference with the Kurdish prime minister that ‘the United Kingdom is not convinced of the necessity that there be a secure area for Christians.’
“As we contemplate the dark scene in Iraq and the dismal state of its Christians, added to the precarious state of Eastern Christians in general, we are terribly disappointed and angry at the ‘International Community’ for its unwillingness to protect Iraqi Christians, abandoning them to face all the dangers surrounding them alone. Isn’t it rather surprising and questionable that, at the very time when Iraq is being emptied of its Christian population and its other small ancient community groups such as the Sabeans, Mandeans and Yezidis, the French ambassador in Baghdad would declare that ‘the Europeans were pleased with the rise of a pluralist and democratic Iraq?’
“Several Christian leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere have expressed deep disappointment about the plight of Christians in Mosul and other parts of Iraq, charging the Iraqi government and the occupying American forces with responsibility for the protection of Christians and all other minorities in the country. Christians have become victims of the internecine fights between the major Muslim factions of Iraq, when actually they have not been part of these struggles. Some newspapers have reported eye-witness accounts of armed bands passing through checkpoints manned by Iraqi army soldiers and the Kurdish armed men of the Pesh Merga on missions to murder Christians in Mosul. These criminal activities were not stopped. Neither were the threatening letters posted on the homes of Christians living in Kurdistan, telling them to leave or face certain death! It is well known that the Kurds play a very important and basic role in the central government in Baghdad, and in all the branches of the Iraqi state, and yet no finger was lifted to stop these horrible terrorist acts.
“We are supposed to be living in a new and open world that is confronting international terrorism in order to arrive at a humane society free of violence and all sorts of hatred and prejudice. So, it becomes the right of the ‘threatened peoples’ to demand protection from the ‘International Community,’ especially after the United Nations have taken action against mass killings, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing, when the local governments have failed to assume responsibility for the safety of their persecuted communities. On Tuesday, November 11, Father Frederico Lombardi, Pope Benedict XVI’s representative, questioned whether the Iraqi government was serious about protecting the Christians in Mosul. According to Reuters, he called on the Iraqi government and human rights organizations to work harder for the protection of the Christians in Mosul, who are being systematically attacked and kidnapped in a planned campaign. Is the ‘International Community’ waiting for an increase in the number of murdered Christians before they are convinced of the failure or unwillingness of the Iraqi government to provide the needed protection for Iraqi Christians before it takes positive action for their protection?”
There is little anyone could add to this article. It informs us of the appalling conditions for Christians and minorities in Iraq, especially in Mosul and several other towns in the northern part of the country. While the American intervention in Iraq successfully toppled the regime of the despot Saddam Hussein and liberated the Iraqis from decades of his regime’s cruelty and terror, some unintended consequences have also arisen. The lawlessness that followed the American liberation unleashed the terrorists’ attacks on U.S. soldiers and precipitated bloody warfare between Sunnis and Shi’ites. No sooner had a relative peace been established, and al-Qaeda forces on the run, a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing surfaced. It was directed against Christians, Mandeans, Sabeans, and Yezidis.
Christians and other minorities in Iraq were first marginalized, then Christian churches were destroyed, and many leaders murdered. The exodus of those able to leave began and continues still. Receiving countries, notably Jordan, are none too happy to accept these refugees. We are told that enlightenment is advancing in Iraq and one hopes and prays this is the case. Yet there are elements of the population who want to destroy “the Other” amongst them as though they didn’t belong to Iraq. But they do. They are of the ancient Chaldean race, a noble, biblical and still existent people. Would that we can see in the future a return of these people to the place of their birth!
As I finish these lines, a relatively new Arabic-language site has come to my attention. It is www.aafaq.org (Horizons,) and from it I learned about another horrible massacre of four women and three men of the Yezidi faith, on Sunday evening, December 14. The crime took place in Sinjar, in the north of the country.
As has already been mentioned, the Western media are preoccupied with economic and political matters affecting Western interests. Do they even follow the tragedies that happen almost on a daily basis in the world influenced by Islamic interests? Why should not the so-called “International Community” show more concern for the dispossessed of Iraq and elsewhere? Why the liberation of Iraq from a bloody Baathist regime should have led to its being emptied of all its minority groups? When Serbia was engaged during the latter part of the 20th century in a terrible campaign of ethnic cleansing directed against Bosnians, the United States and its NATO allies intervened forcefully to end that genocide. Muslims were the beneficiaries and some might even argue that in the aftermath, Christians have been lumped in with the truly evil Serbian elements and now they are being persecuted and marginalized. Why the United States and the Western nations that are keeping the Balkans somewhat quiet at the moment, continue to keep silent about what’s going on in Iraq? The French author Annie Laurent was right when she predicted after the 9-11 events ‘that Christians living in the Muslim world would become martyrs on account of their faith, and victims of the radical Islamist aggression.’
It is important to note that the continued presence of non-Muslim religious communities within the Middle East is considered by the dominant Muslim majorities, as an implicit denial of the finality and superiority of Islam. Therefore, there is no raison d'être for their continued existence. This judgment may sound like an extremely shocking explanation for the rise and persistence of anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sentiments among the Muslim majorities of the area. But I believe it must be taken into consideration when trying to understand the hatred that leads to the type of ethnic-religious cleansings that are going on in Iraq and elsewhere.
I am grateful to this courageous Arab writer who brought to the attention of the readers of Elaph, the desperate plight of Iraqi Christians. It is now the turn of Western Christians basking in their freedoms, to come to the aid of their brothers and sisters in Mesopotamia. We should make every attempt to prevail upon our political leaders in voices loud and clear, by telling them:
Don’t forget Christians, Mandeans, Sabeans, and Yezidis. Liberating Iraq should not have ended with many of these people being murdered, many others having their homes stolen, and many, if so privileged, being forced to leave their homeland for other lands which do not even welcome them. What kind of a legacy will the United States, Britain and free nations everywhere leave behind in Iraq, if this situation is not addressed and rectified? The crimes we see occurring against our fellow men, be they Christians, Mandeans, Sabeans, or Yezidis, or any other neglected minority, in that desperate place must not be forgotten, and every effort taken by free nations everywhere to right a palpable wrong.
*Annie Laurent, [Né en 1949] 20e siècle
Annie Laurent est docteur d'État en sciences politiques pour une thèse sur "Le Liban et son voisinage (1943-1984)", obtenue à l'université de Paris-II. Journaliste et écrivain, collaborant à des revues scientifiques et grand public, elle a vécu pendant cinq ans au Liban où elle éditait le périodique "Libanoscopie" (1988-1992). Elle a publié, entre autres ouvrages : "Guerres secrètes au Liban", Paris, Gallimard, 1987 ; Collectif, "Vivre avec l'islam ?", Paris, Saint-Paul, 1996 ; « Au cœur du dialogue interreligieux », "Cahier d'EDIFA", n° 6, 1999 ; "Pour l'amour de l'Église", entretiens avec l'abbé Christian Laffargue, Paris, Fayard, 1999.
Annie Laurent, who was born in 1949, received her doctorate in political science for her thesis on “Lebanon and its Environment (1943-1984)” from the University of Paris-II. She is a journalist and a writer, whose works appear in scientific journals as well as in popular magazines. She has lived in Lebanon for five years during which she was the editor of “Libanoscopie” from 1988-1992. Among her publications are the following: “The Secret Wars in Lebanon,” (1987,) “Living with Islam,” (1996,) “In the Heart of Inter-religious Dialogue,” (1999,) and “For Love of the Church” (1999).