Someone in the U.S. government finally has noticed the plight of Iraqi Christians. A congressional appropriations subcommittee has voted to spend $10 million to aid displaced religious minorities within Iraq. That mostly means Christians.
Although Islam long has been in the ascendancy in Iraq, the so-called Assyrians, who speak a neo-Aramaic language, represent a distinct religious minority, generally grouped in the Chaldean, Apostolic Catholic, and Syriac Orthodox churches. The Assyrians predate the rise of Islam, representing a 7,000 year-old civilization. They have survived numerous episodes of war and catastrophe. Today, however, the Iraqi Christian community faces possible extermination.
If there is good news, it is that most Iraqi Christians are being driven from their homes rather than being massacred. But if they do not flee, they increasingly risk slaughter. The irony is extraordinary: Christian America has inadvertently loosed the vicious forces bent on destroying Iraqi Christians. Persecuted by Islamic extremists and targeted for their frequent cooperation with occupation authorities, Christians have ever less hope in a nation that has fallen into violent chaos.
The Assyrian International News Agency has released a new report (pdf) entitled “Incipient Genocide: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Assyrians of Iraq,” written by Peter BetBasoo. It makes for dreadful reading. Washington’s ability to influence events in Iraq is rapidly waning, but so long as the U.S. is present it should attempt to protect people who have been the best friends and strongest advocates of America in Iraq.
Since the American invasion, several hundred Assyrians have been murdered. Even more have been kidnapped. Dozens of churches have been bombed or otherwise attacked. Hundreds of Christian businesses have been torched because of the faith of their owners, wrecked for being non-Islamic (such as liquor stores) or ruined by criminal attacks and kidnappings. Christian women are being threatened and attacked for failing to follow Islamic law.
As sectarian violence has risen and the insurgency has surged, Christians have been targeted for retaliation. They long were despised by jihadists for their faith. Then many Christians, who disproportionately spoke English, signed up to serve the U.S. military and occupation authorities. For them, the U.S. connection is a potential death sentence.
Yet Washington has done essentially nothing. In hopes of demonstrating impartiality, Washington has refused to help Christians, even when they have been literally placed under siege in their homes and neighborhoods. Their abandonment by Washington has had tragic consequences.
IRAQI CHRISTIANS HAVE RESPONDED in the only way possible: running away. Roughly half of the pre-war Christian community is thought to have fled Iraq. Reports BetBasoo: “Assyrians comprised 8% (1.5 million) of the Iraqi population in April of 2003. Since then 50% have fled the country. Of the 750,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan up to 150,000 are Assyrians. Of the 1.2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, 70,000 to 500,000 are Assyrians.”
That Iraqi Christians have fared poorly in the midst of Muslim radicalism, whether Shia or Sunni, comes as no surprise. Christians possess no military forces, no militias organized for their defense. Nor are their enclaves large enough to offer protection.
Less expected was Kurdistan’s mistreatment of the Assyrians. Indeed, writes BetBasoo, the “systematic campaign of persecution … began in the Kurdish regions of north Iraq shortly after the first Gulf war and spread to Baghdad and Basra after the liberation of Iraq in April of 2003. In the last three months it has intensified and is now openly declared in some areas of Iraq.”
Unfortunately, there is little hope that the violence will abate. To the contrary, members of the Assyrian community are now worried about genocide, essentially the complete destruction of Assyrian Christians. Contends BetBasoo: “Being unarmed, oppressed and disadvantaged by centuries of prejudice and dhimmi [official minority] status, the Assyrians have become the targets of persecution country-wide, from Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis.” He adds: “since Assyrians are not capable of defending themselves and are targeted as a class because of their distinct identity, what is now unfolding in Iraq can be termed an incipient genocide.”
Using the term is inherently controversial, but Christianity is disappearing from Iraq. A distinct ethnic, language, and religious community is being driven out.
Although the violence appears to be more anarchic than concerted, it has had the same effect as an organized campaign to destroy Iraq’s Assyrians. Virtually every member of the community is under siege.
For instance, the first Christian church was bombed in June 2004. Since then another 32 Christian churches have been attacked. Numerous ministers and deacons have been kidnapped and murdered.
Christian women are particularly vulnerable. BetBasoo writes: “Often incidents do not end with the prisoner’s release. In one case in Baghdad, the victim committed suicide after the ransom was paid and she went home, because of the torture and sexual violence she suffered. In another case, a young woman talked to her family by phone and told them: ‘I’m dead,’ referring to being gang-raped. She eventually committed suicide whilst still in the hands of her tormentors.”
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