At Large

Thrown to the Lions

The painful death of Iraq's Christian community.

By 7.2.07

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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."

A systematic effort to impose Islamic law has most affected Christian women, who have been ordered to adopt Islamic dress, including the veil. In one instance, the al-Mahdi Army (loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr) drafted a letter warning that "special committees have been established to follow up on this matter." Individual Christian women have been attacked, with some murdered or disfigured with acid.

Christian businessmen have proved to be prime targets. One aspect of the problem is simple crime: Christian entrepreneurs are thought to be wealthier and more likely to have rich foreign relatives. Moreover, explains BetBasoo, "Assyrian businesses are systematically targeted and attacked, particularly businesses that are perceived to be 'un-Islamic'." At most risk are liquor stores, cinemas, music stores, and retailers who sell radios and televisions.

Even universities have not provided safe havens for Christians. Christian students have been beaten, shot, and threatened with expulsion. Women have been ordered to veil themselves and stop attending classes. In the city of Mosul, BetBasoo writes of a letter sent to church leaders which "announced Muslims' intention of killing one person in every Christian family, as punishment for the women not covering their heads and going to university. This followed pressure from Islamic extremists against all women in Mosul requiring them to cover their head with the hijab." These demands were preceded by attacks on individual women.

Today there is no safety even in Christian neighborhoods, since Islamist forces can invade them with impunity. Whatever the virtues of the current U.S. military surge, safeguarding Christians is not among them. Writes BetBasoo:

In early March, 2007, al-Qaeda moved into Dora, a predominantly Assyrian neighborhood in south Baghdad, and began imposing strict Islamic law. The Christian Assyrians were being forced to pay the jizya, the poll tax demanded by the Koran which all Christians and Jews must pay in exchange for being allowed to live and practice their faith as well as being entitled to "Muslim protection" from outside aggression.

Those who remain are subject to Islamic practices, such as use of the veil by women and disconnecting satellite dishes. The only other alternatives offered were death or flight -- or delivering a daughter or sister to the mosque for marriage to a local Muslim man. Reports BetBasoo: "Families that could not pay this sum were told to send one family member to the mosque on Friday to announce their conversion to Islam. Families who refused to do this were told they must leave their homes immediately and not take any of their belongings with them because 'your properties belong to the mosque.'" Families who did leave were charged an "exit fee." A majority of Christians fled from several areas, as jihadists applied the tactics used in Dora to other neighborhoods.

THREATENED CHRISTIANS APPEALED to both the Iraqi government and U.S. military, without result. "Nobody really cares," one of them despaired in an email to the Assyrian International News Service. And nothing in the behavior of the authorities contradicts that assertion.

Perhaps most disappointing is the behavior of Kurds in their territory. Although friendly to the U.S., the Kurdish authorities routinely intimidate and victimize the Christian minority. Property has been confiscated; resources such as water have been diverted from Christian to Muslim communities; Christian villages have been blockaded; young Christian women have been kidnapped; and individual Christians have been harassed, mistreated, beaten, and murdered.

BetBasoo includes as an appendix a chronological listing of murdered Assyrians, including short biographies and photos of many of the victims. This turns them into real people rather than numbers.

He concludes his report with photos of ruined churches. It is an appropriate end, for it illustrates what the sustained attacks on the Christian community really mean: the eradication of an entire religion and people from Iraq. Islamic fundamentalists once feared that the U.S. invasion of Iraq presaged an attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity. In fact, it has triggered a sustained if not exactly organized campaign to convert, kill, or exile Christians from their historic home in a majority Muslim nation.

Unfortunately, the worse the situation in Iraq, the less hope there is to save Iraqi Christians. The Assyrian community has called for creation of a protected enclave, though its survival after a future U.S. military withdrawal is doubtful. While American troops remain on station, however, Washington has an obligation to protect the most vulnerable minorities, especially those who have aided America.

Equally important, the U.S. should welcome Christians fleeing the violence. Muslim refugees may have some hope of returning to a future Iraq that becomes stable if not liberal. The Assyrians are far less likely to find a tolerant and tolerable environment. With Jordan and Syria overwhelmed with fleeing Iraqis, it is time for America to open its doors. These are, after all, people who favor the U.S., have been endangered because of American policy, and have no where else to go.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).