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By Nina Shea
director, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom
What is most startling about the report of the heartless double bus bombings on May 2 that targeted and injured 80 Christian students traveling to northern Iraq’s Mosul University was that the young Christians there attend university at all. Since the U.S. invasion, Iraq’s Christians have been mostly driven out of the country by violence directed against them for their religion. Their communities are shattered. That these young people continued to dream of preparing themselves to serve their country signals that community’s deep commitment to Iraq and a modicum of hope they still harbor for its future.
Unless the Obama administration acts fast to develop policies to help them, though, their hope will likely be in vain.
Relentless waves of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, extortions and rapes have triggered a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq over the past seven years. Since 2003, over half of the estimated 1.5 million Iraqi Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian, Syriac Orthodox, and Armenian Christians, as well as some Protestants have fled to Syria, Jordan and farther flung places. While only 3 or 4 percent of Iraq’s pre-2003 population, they account for 40 percent of its refugees, the UN reported.
Christians remain the largest non-Muslim minority there but church leaders express a real fear that the light of the faith in Iraq that is said to have been kindled personally by Thomas, one of Jesus’ Twelve Apostles, could soon be extinguished. Iraq’s other non-Muslim religions, the much smaller groups of Mandeans (followers of John the Baptist), Yizidis (an ancient angel-centered religion), Bahai’s and Jews are also all being forced out by violence.
Religious persecution in Iraq is so “egregious” that the country has now been included, alongside the likes of notoriously repressive Iran and China, on a recommended short list of “Countries of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act, by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
No Iraq group, Muslim or non-Muslim, has been spared massive and appalling religiously-motivated violence; however, as the independent federal commission found, the one-two punch of extremist ruthlessness and deep governmental discrimination now threatens the “very existence” of Iraq’s ancient Christian churches, some of whom still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus of Nazareth.
The Sunni-Shiite violence rightly concerned the Bush administration. The surge that was devised to alleviate it, however, did not address the unique plight of the Christians. Evidence suggests it may have even made things far worse for them by flushing terrorists northward into the ancestral Christian areas around Mosul and the northern Nineveh Plains. In 2007, Pope Benedict directly told President Bush that in Iraq, “the society that was evolving would not tolerate the Christian religion.” Yet, no American policy was directed to enable this ancient group survive the religious cleansing that the invasion unleashed.
The Christians and the other smallest minorities are not simply caught in the middle. The refugee branches of both the UN and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops separately concluded after extensive research that their presence in Iraq is being “obliterated” (the bishops group’s term) because of fiercely intolerant attacks specifically targeting them. From southern Basra to northern Kirkuk, the religious minorities have suffered bloody reprisals from terrorists and extremists for failing to conform to Islamic behavior — in their dress, social patterns, and occupations, as well as in their worship.
The sustained violence against the Christians started with a coordinated bombing of churches in August 2004. The Christians remember that similar bombings of synagogues in 1948 prompted Iraq’s Jewish community to flee, leaving a total of seven Jews in Baghdad today. During the 2007 surge, the capital’s integrated Dora neighborhood was religiously cleansed when the Christians there were ordered to convert or be killed in a fatwa from Sunni militants. The 2,000 Christian families who left have not returned.
In 2008, the charismatic Catholic Chaldean Archbishop Rahho was abducted while he prayed the Lenten Stations of the Cross at his church in Mosul and later was found dead. Other priests have been beheaded or otherwise assassinated. The list of victims includes lay people; Anglican Canon Andrew White, who leads a Baghdad ecumenical congregation, reports: “All of my leadership were originally taken and killed — all dead.”
Christian children have been tortured to death, reported the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Islamic fanatics broke into a Chaldean home near Mosul and killed a ten-year-old boy while shouting, “We’ve come to exterminate you. This is the end for you Christians!” ChaldoAssyrian workers have been murdered for “collaborating” with the United States. And Christian women have been hit hard; it was at Mosul University that some young Christian women were raped and killed for offending some Muslims by wearing jeans and having a picnic with male colleagues.
The Chaldean Federation of America has documented some of the personal threats received by Iraq’s Christians, such as the following:
“To the traitor, apostate Amir XX, after we warned you more than once to quit working with the American occupiers, but you did not learn from what happened to others, and you continued, you and your infidel wife Rina XX by opening a women hair cutting place and this is among the forbidden things for us, and therefore we are telling you and your wife to quit these deeds and to pay the amount of (20,000) thousand dollars in protective tax for your violation and within only one week or we will kill you and your family, member by member, and those who have warned are excused. Al-Mujahideen Battalions.”
Such threats and violence against Iraq’s smallest minorities is conducted with impunity. Iraq’s government has made no serious attempt to ensure either justice or adequate security for them.
Thus far the rapid erosion of Iraqi Christianity and of religious pluralism generally has drawn little notice from President Obama. There are compelling moral and national security reasons for the administration to help these minorities. Not only do they tend to be educated and skilled modernizers, who can help Iraq, but their very presence in Iraq will promote peaceful coexistence more generally, which will help us all. As a Chaldean Bishop remarked: “This is very sad and very dangerous for the church, for Iraq and even for Muslim people, because it means the end of an old experience of living together.”
Nina Shea, an international human-rights lawyer for 30 years, is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom and a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.