It was Christmas in Iraq as well as America, but there were fewer celebrations than in the past. Iraq has become a particularly dangerous place for Christians: it is safer to stay home than attend services, and even better to seek refuge in Kurdish territory or leave Iraq entirely.
Washington is filled with talk of new directions in Iraq. President George W. Bush has largely dismissed the Iraq Study Group report and apparently plans on modestly upping U.S. occupation forces. However, a temporary surge isn’t likely to have much permanent effect. The future of Iraq almost certainly is in the hands of Iraqis. The number of optimists who expect to see a liberal, Western-oriented, united Iraq are dwindling fast.
Virtually invisible, alas, has been the status of Iraq’s Christians. To raise awareness of their plight the group Christians for Assyrians of Iraq held a rally outside the White House in early December. Christianity predates Islam in Iraq, and believers survived centuries of persecution. Although a brute, Hussein did not target Christians, who were largely free to work and worship.
Then Hussein’s ouster seemed to open the country to evangelism. Jim Jacobson, president of Christian Freedom International (CFI), told the American Conservative: “A lot of Iraqis were seeing Christianity for the first time,” resulting in an “explosion of conversions” and “underground, nondenominational churches.”
But the collapse of Iraqi civil society quickly dissipated the ecumenical spirit of religious liberty. Although the Shiite- dominated government does not oppress, Christians are a uniquely vulnerable, disfavored minority with neither political power nor militia protection. Christians, usually in business and often thought to have wealthy relatives abroad, are targeted by criminals. Believers also are caught in the violent cross-fire that now characterizes so much of Iraqi society.
Finally, as Carl Moeller of Open Doors USA told the American Conservative, “Christians are targeted specifically for being Christians.” The attacks began early — in early 2004 Paul Marshall, then of Freedom House, pointed to increasing assaults on Christians. The violence has only gotten worse. Canon Andrew White, the vicar of St. George’s Church in Baghdad, told the Times of London: “All my staff at the church have been killed.” Historian Fred Aprim has composed a long list of attacks, available on The Christians of Iraq website. CFI, which is making aid to Christian Iraqis a priority, has publicly warned of “a silent reign of terror” against believers.
Although they have been identified with the U.S. — most Iraqi Christians welcomed American troops and many Christians speak English and signed up as interpreters — they have received little help in return. The Bush administration wants to avoid appearing to favor any group. Business analyst Glen Chancy has complained: “Evidencing too much concern for Iraqi Christians, it is feared, would reinforce the idea that the U.S. is fighting a ‘war on Islam.'”
So bad have things become that many Iraqi Christians now look back on Saddam Hussein’s rule as a time of relative peace. Solaka Enweya fled to Syria with his three sons. He explained to the New York Times: “When we heard that the Americans were going to liberate Iraq, we were so happy. Yet our suffering has only increased.”
For many Christians in Iraq, flight is the only option. The United Nations estimates that about 40 percent of the more than million Iraqis who have emigrated are Christians. That’s an astounding number for a group who made up perhaps four percent of Iraq’s pre-war population. Some Iraqi Christians believe the number of emigres is higher: Chaldean Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Andreos Abouna of Baghdad says half of Iraq’s 1.2 million Christians may have fled.
Ironically, most of them have ended up in Syria, a member of the Axis of Near-Evil, and Jordan and Lebanon, rather than in America or the West. United Nations officials figure that about 100,000 of Christian Iraqis would like to come to America, but only 200 were allowed into the U.S. last year. Lawrence Kaplan of the New Republic complains that the administration prefers not to acknowledge the existence of religious persecution, since doing so would counter its claim that steady progress is being made in Iraq. Arthur E. Dewey, the assistant secretary of state for refugee affairs until 2005, echoes Kaplan’s charge: “for political reasons the administration will discourage” Iraqi resettlement in the U.S. “because of the psychological message it would send, that it is a losing cause.”
The tragic irony of the Iraqi exodus is that it is U.S. action that threatens to trigger the final destruction of a historic Christian community deep in the Middle East. Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute speaks of the “extinction of an ancient Christian community” which dates “to apostolic times.” A community of believers who survived prior rounds of religious persecution and political oppression. So bad is the situation that Mark Hetfield, senior vice president of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which traditionally has helped Jews come to America, told the New York Times: “There are few religious minorities in the world today as persecuted as the Iraqi Christian population.”
There are no good options in Iraq, and it is unrealistic to expect to expect U.S. policymakers to design overall policy around the suffering of Iraqi Christians. However, argues Jacobson, “America has a moral obligation to help people who have come under jihadist attack because of their association with the U.S.”
A few steps suggest themselves. First, as long as American troops are on patrol, they should set as a priority protecting Christian communities. Second, as areas are turned over to Iraqi forces, the Bush administration should insist that the U.S.- supported government and U.S.-trained police and military treat Christians fairly. (This is a problem even in Kurdistan, where officials discriminate against Christian villages in the distribution of American aid.)
Third, as Iraqis debate the future of their nation, Washington should propose creation of a special administrative district for Christians in the north of Iraq. It might not survive a U.S. withdrawal, but Christians likely would be more secure there than in isolated neighborhoods and villages. Obviously, Washington might not be able to enforce its wishes, but it has an obligation to make an effort on behalf of the Christian minority.
Most important, America must welcome Christians who flee Iraq. If the administration loses face, so what? That the invasion of Iraq has not turned out according to plan is obvious to all. Washington can ill afford to abandon Iraqis, non-Christians as well as Christians, who supported American efforts and now find themselves at risk.
Generously accepting political refugees should be treated as separate from the larger immigration debate. The cause of Iraqi Christians is just and their numbers are small. Turning our backs on them would be contrary to America’s most basic values, while demonstrating yet again that Washington can be counted on to forget its friends. That surely is not a lesson the administration should allow to emerge from its policy in Iraq.
There is no consensus about the best strategy in Iraq, but there should be agreement about the importance of protecting Iraq’s dwindling Christian community. This is one moral obligation America should not break.
Doug Bandow is Vice President of Policy for Citizen Outreach and author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire (Xulon Press). He is writing a book on religious persecution abroad.