By Leonard Leo and Talal Eid
As Christians around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, their brothers and sisters in Iraq face the unthinkable: the possible obliteration of their community, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Victimized by violence, displacement, discrimination, and marginalization, Iraq’s Christians have been emigrating in mass numbers. Those remaining in Iraq fear for their lives and safety. Their plight is urgent. For both humanitarian and security reasons, the United States, along with other nations, must respond decisively.
One of the worst attacks on Christians was launched on October 31, 2010, during Sunday Mass. An al Qaeda affiliate assaulted Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, killing or wounding nearly all of the more than one hundred worshippers inside – including women, children, and two priests.
Iraqi security forces survey the scene outside the Sayidat al-Nejat Catholic Cathedral, or Syrian Catholic Church, in central Baghdad, the morning after Christian worshipers and Iraqi commandos were killed when security forces stormed the cathedral to free dozens of hostages in an attack claimed by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Sabah Arar-AFP/Getty Images
Such assaults resemble the continued atrocities against Shi’ia Muslim worshippers and pilgrims. Yet there is a critical difference. In the attacks against both communities, the culprits are often the same, but their aims diverge. As Iraq’s religious majority, the Shi’ia are being attacked in order to provoke civil war and topple the government. As Iraq’s largest non-Muslim majority community, the Christians are being assaulted in order to isolate them and cleanse the nation of their presence. Surveying the October 31 carnage, Wijdan Michael, Iraq’s human rights minister and herself a Christian, put it well when she said:
“What happened… is an attempt….to empty Iraq of Christians.”
A Christian woman grieves during a mass at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Dec. 10, 2010. Iraqi Christians have gathered for mass in the same church that more than a month ago was the scene of a horrific bloodbath that left scores dead and wounded. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
This campaign of religious cleansing began in August 2004 with a series of coordinated church bombings. What followed has been horrific by any standards. In the ensuing years, Christians have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, beheaded, and evicted from their homes.
Since this reign of terror began, Iraq’s Christians have essentially been offered three options: convert to Islam, risk physical harm, including death, or leave the country. That explains the exodus. A community that in 2003 included some 800,000 to 1.4 million people is now thought to have dropped in numbers by half.
The barbaric war against Christians is part of a broader attack against Iraq’s non-Muslim minorities. Mandaeans, who follow John the Baptist, and Yizidis, who adhere to an angel-centered religion, have also been viciously persecuted by violent, radical Islamists. The Mandaeans in Iraq are believed to number only a few thousand, down from an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 in 2003.
For Christians, the fate of another religious minority, Iraq’s Jewish community, provides a grim example of what the future may hold. Like Iraq’s Christians, the Jews were there for more than 20 centuries. As of 1947, the country’s Jewish population exceeded 50,000. Today only a handful remains.
For humanitarian reasons alone, the U.S. and the world must hear and heed the anguished cries of Iraqi Christians.
Yet there is another, equally compelling reason to care.
Simply stated, it is in the interests of the U.S. and the international community that Iraq becomes a force for freedom and stability in the Middle East.
If that is the goal, then the eradication of its Christian community would be a colossal setback. It would remove an educated and successful community, as well as a historically moderating force that served for centuries as a bridge between East and West. If liberty and security are to prevail over violent extremism and intolerance, bridge-building is essential.
Moreover, the same radical forces that war against Iraqi Christians are at war with Iraqi democracy. For years, al Qaeda and its minions have tried to pit Iraqi against Iraqi — Muslim against Christian, but also Muslim against Muslim, especially Sunni versus Shi’ia.
Their aim is to destroy any semblance of religious freedom and other liberties, not just in Iraq but across the Middle East. They seek to combine the intolerant values of a medieval theocracy with the ghastly methods of a modern, totalitarian police state. From the suppression of competing religions to the subjugation of women, their extremist vision threatens the entire region and parts of the rest of the world.
An Iraqi Christian woman prays over pictures of the October 31 church carnage victims at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) church in Baghdad on December 19, 2010. The UN refugee agency has said an “exodus” of thousands of Iraqi Christians was taking place following the attack carried out by Al-Qaeda militants. (SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)
What should be done for Iraq’s Christians and its other embattled religious minorities?
First, in consultation with the minorities’ political and civic leaders, the U.S. and Iraqi governments should develop and implement a serious plan for Iraqi military protection of the sites and areas where these vulnerable minorities live and worship.
Second, the U.S. should help Iraq’s government create, fund, train, and deploy local police units that include officers from these vulnerable minorities in order to help protect their own communities.
Third, it should strongly urge Iraqi officials to investigate fully all religiously motivated attacks and, when appropriate, prosecute the guilty to the fullest extent possible.
Finally, it should ensure that U.S. development assistance in Iraq prioritizes areas where these vulnerable minority communities are concentrated, and that the projects in these areas are developed and implemented in close consultation with the communities’ own leaders.
As Christmas approaches, the sun is setting on Iraqi Christians. Will there be Christmas in Iraq? Only if we act now.
Mr. Leo is chairman of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and Imam Eid and a USCIRF commissioner.
An Iraqi man carrying Arabic coffee walks past a Santa Claus displayed outside a shop in Baghdad on December 23, 2010. Christmas for Iraq’s Christian community will this year be a time of fear and cancelled celebrations instead of rejoicing following renewed threats by Al-Qaeda and a church massacre. (Sabah ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)