By Robin Harris
In Iraq the â€œsurgeâ€ is working, but at the same time the Iraqi Christian community is dying. Hardly anyone seems to know, and those who know donâ€™t seem to care. In former times, the violent persecution of Christians in a country effectively under the rule of a Western, Christian power would have been unthinkable. But not, it seems, in the enlightened 21st century.
The names may be complicated. The facts are not. The Chaldo-Assyrians constitute what remains of the original, non-Arab, population of the area. Iraqâ€™s principal Christian communities today belong to the Chaldean (Catholic) Church, Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East. All use Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Despite successive persecutions and constant pressures, Christianity has continued in Iraq since, according to tradition, it was brought there by St. Thomas the Apostle.
But Christianity now faces extinction. The 1987 census recorded 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Numbers began to drop as conditions deteriorated after the first Gulf War. There were, though, around 800,000 at the time of the U.S-led invasion of 2003. Of these, about half have now left the country altogether, while more than 100,000 are internally displaced persons.
There is no mystery as to why. With other (still smaller) religious minorities, such as Yazidis and Mandaeans, Iraqâ€™s Christians are suffering sustained persecution. While constituting less than 4 percent of the population of Iraq, Christians constitute 40 percent of the refugees leaving the country. Most of these have found refuge in Syria and Jordan, where they are living in utterly degrading conditions. The current rate of Christian exodus is estimated at about 2,000 a day.
Members of all religions have been affected by the violence since the toppling of Saddam Hussein. But Christians are in a worse position since they suffer directly because of their Christian faith. Targeted by Islamist extremists, they are confronted by demands to convert, death threats, looting of their homes and businesses, systematic intimidation, abductions for ransom, bombings, and frequently murder. Because Christians are known to be weak they and their property are also prey to gangsterism. Churches and church leaders are particular targets for Islamists. The 65-year-old Chaldean archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul was abducted and murdered in March. Numerous priests and deacons have been tortured and shot or beheaded. At least 40 churches have been burnt.
The Iraqi Christian community has disappeared altogether from many areas of the country. Baghdad is rapidly emptying of its once flourishing Christian community, whose members have fled north to the traditional Christian homeland in the towns and villages of the plains of Nineveh. But here too they are hugely vulnerable. The regionally dominant Kurds, with whom relations have historically been bad and occasionally bloody, have little interest in offering protection. The Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is distant, unsympathetic, and has its own interests and problems. Even the relative success of the U.S. surge strategy has brought difficulties for the Christians, because the struggle with al-Qaeda is now focused on the regional centre Mosul, where Christians had hoped to find security. The Christian population itself is unused to bearing arms. It has no militia to defend it. It has no regional protectors. It is subject to pressures of illegal land confiscation and annexation, aimed at pushing it out of its last refuge.
And an immediate humanitarian crisis threatens. It is estimated that 6,000 Christian families (30,000 people) in towns and villages of the Nineveh plains lack ration books. The aid which comes to the region is channeled through the Kurdish authorities so, naturally enough, is directed to the Kurds, at the expense of the less powerful Christians. NGOs are almost entirely absent. Open sewage flows through streets separating ruined or makeshift structures, where families live in fear and squalor. There is little work, less education, and no hope.
The situation can thus correctly and without exaggeration be described as desperate. The best long-term hope for the Christians is the success of Americaâ€™s and the Iraqi governmentâ€™s war against al-Qaeda. Stability is what all Iraqis need â€” and the Christians, as the weakest, need it more than most. But under current conditions, the Christian community will simply not survive to see the benefits. Immediate, focused action is required to offer effective protection and aid. Giving Christians their own police force and local autonomy as well as guaranteeing humanitarian relief â€” both for the internally displaced population and the refugees â€” must be the priorities.
Unfortunately, until now there has been a conspiracy of near-silence. Some in the U.S. administration have been unwilling to have public attention drawn to the problem, for fear it would undermine support for the surge strategy. Other countries â€” with the notable exception of Germany â€” do not wish to do so either, for fear that they will be expected to take in more refugees. (Britain has a particularly shameful record in this respect). Meanwhile, diplomatic circles have a politically correct repugnance against any initiative directed towards helping a particular religious group â€” especially, of course, a Christian one. At an international level, only the pope has called for urgent action to avert the tragedy.
America and her allies have now to decide whether they are prepared to see the imminent extinction of Iraqâ€™s nearly-2,000-year-old Christian community. Such an outcome is not inevitable, but it would certainly be irreversible. If ever there were a test for the Westâ€™s â€” and Americaâ€™s â€” Christian conscience, this is it.
â€” Robin Harris is consultant director of the London-based Politeia think tank and a former adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.