The destruction of Iraq’s Christians

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By Rayyan al-Shawaf

Last month, a Chaldean priest, Ragheed Ganni, and three sub-deacons were murdered by Islamist terrorists in Mosul, Iraq. Before being executed, they were informed that they would be spared on the condition that they converted to Islam. All refused. Ganni was one of many Iraqis killed since 2003 for no reason other than their Christian identity. Additionally, thousands of Christians have been expelled from their homes, extorted, harassed, beaten, raped and ordered to covert to Islam, spawning a frantic and ongoing exodus. As a result, Iraq’s Christian community stands on the verge of extinction. Other religious minorities have also been persecuted, including the Yazidis of the north and the tiny Mandaean community of the south.

Until recently, the Iraqi diaspora was relatively small. The 1980-1988 war between Iraq and Iran, which was accompanied by an economic boom, did not prompt mass emigration of Iraqis. Large-scale emigration began with Saddam Hussein’s 1988 Anfal campaign against Kurds, and skyrocketed with the 1991 Gulf war, Saddam’s crushing of a Shiite rebellion, and international sanctions. The resulting economic deterioration led large numbers of Christians to leave. Saddam’s post-war Islamization drive provided an added incentive.

Most of Iraq’s Christians are Chaldo-Assyrians, an ethnic group comprising several Christian sects, including Chaldean Catholics (the largest), two factions of the Assyrian Church of the East, and Syriac Orthodox and Catholics. Iraq is also home to Armenian Orthodox and Catholics, and smaller groups like Anglicans, Protestants, and Roman Catholics. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the number of Christians was often generously estimated at 800,000; the real figure was likely no higher than 500,000. The violent and anarchic period following the invasion has proven disastrous; some estimates indicate that in the past four years, the Christian population of Iraq has halved.

Although bombings of churches receive media attention, assassinations and kidnappings go largely unnoticed. Recently, however, expulsions and large-scale harassment of Christians, such as those under way in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Daura, have been reported. “The Islamic State of Iraq,” a Sunni terrorist umbrella group which includes Al-Qaeda, ordered Christian residents of Al-Daura to pay a jizya, the Islamic poll tax historically imposed upon non-Muslims. The money would go to financing the very activities that threaten the future of Christians in Iraq. Seventy percent of the neighborhood’s Christians subsequently fled.

It is crucial to understand that Christians in Iraq are not simply suffering from the general violence and anarchy plaguing the country, but are being targeted as Christians by Islamists as well as criminal gangs. While Islamist terrorists openly aim to rid Iraq of all “infidels,” criminals seek to exploit the perceived wealth of Christians. Thus, many Christians who were middle-class are now destitute, having paid exorbitant ransoms for kidnapped loved ones – some of whom were killed nonetheless.

Though Christians have been persecuted by Muslims in the past, today’s Islamist onslaught against Christians in Iraq has led to something virtually unprecedented in the history of Islam in Mesopotamia: Christians must hide their identity so as to avoid being harassed or killed. Christian women routinely don the hijab, and men and women with identifiably Christian names have taken to concealing them. Concomitantly, Christians have been forced to remove the cross from public view, including church steeples and domes as well as from around their necks. This is a hugely symbolic act that powerfully illustrates the tragic position of Christians in Iraq today.

Church services are regularly cancelled; when held, many parishioners are understandably too scared to attend. During parliamentary elections, Chaldo-Assyrian political parties didn’t dare to mount a public election campaign, for fear this might be deemed “provocative.” Physical danger stalks Christians everywhere; Islamist groups have launched sectarian cleansing operations against Christian enclaves in virtually all Iraqi cities. Christians are targeted by both Sunni and Shiite violence. Though some have sought sanctuary among coreligionists in the Kurdish-controlled north, for many there is no option but to leave Iraq altogether.

Women are especially vulnerable. Theological justifications for the rape of non-Muslim women and their forcible betrothal to Muslims are widespread – Mandaean women have been specifically targeted – as are rulings permitting the summary murder of all non-Muslims who violate Islamic law. Violations can be selling liquor, dressing “immodestly,” refusing to pay a jizya, expressing a political opinion, or even just professing one’s faith openly. In the worst circumstances, the very act of being non-Muslim is perceived as an offense; many Islamist militias simply present non-Muslims with the choice of converting to Islam or being killed.
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Significantly, however, it isn’t just terrorists who target Christians. A previously latent anti-Christian animus among large sections of the Muslim populace has manifested itself. There are many recorded instances of politically unaffiliated Muslims turning on their Christian neighbors, of others refusing to pay debts owed to Christians, and of acts of individual extortion. Fatwas authorizing the seizure of abandoned Christian property inevitably encourage Muslims to expel Christians or intimidate them into fleeing, while invidious rumors of wholesale Christian “collaboration” with the occupation forces prompt anti-Christian violence. This is part of the general Islamization engulfing Iraq, turning ordinary Muslims against their Christian compatriots, who are denigrated as “unclean” and physically threatened for being “Crusaders.”

Western countries, terrified of being perceived as biased toward Christians, have maintained a studied indifference, while the Iraqi government and security services have been heavily infiltrated by members of anti-Christian Shiite militias. Unlike Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds, Christians field no militias and are easy prey for their oppressors.

Iraqi Muslim leaders’ condemnation of sectarian violence is woefully insufficient, as they refuse to acknowledge – let alone confront – the extremism in their midst. Influential Muslim clerics like the Sunni cleric Hareth al-Dari and the Shiite Muqtada al-Sadr flatly deny that their communities produce extremists; instead, each blames the other community and the American military for all outrages. This doesn’t apply only to anti-Christian violence. Incredibly, Sunni leaders accuse Shiites of being behind attacks on Shiite holy sites, while Shiite leaders straight-facedly accuse Sunnis of the mass kidnappings and executions of unarmed Sunnis. As a result, there is little introspection and no self-criticism on the part of either community. Indeed, Muslim leaders often condemn the atrocity while exonerating the perpetrator.

The tragedy is that we will likely soon find ourselves writing the epitaph of Iraq’s Christian community. Indeed, even if the situation were suddenly to improve – a highly unlikely prospect – it is already too late to reverse the effects of the hemorrhaging. Massive emigration has altered Iraq’s demography irrevocably, and certain groups will never recover. Figures for members of the Assyrian Church, for example, have plummeted, and the Armenians of Iraq have virtually disappeared. Other minorities besides Christians are also endangered; according to the Mandaean Society of America, 85 percent of Iraq’s Mandaeans have fled since 2003.

Eventually, the violence in Iraq will subside and a modicum of security will return. Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds will arrive at a modus vivendi, however imperfect. In attempting to forge some semblance of unity, a nationalist historiography will likely blame the occupation forces for Iraq’s post-Saddam violence. And this will be the second crime perpetrated against Iraqi victims of Islamist terror. After all, there can be no greater insult to the murdered than to exonerate their murderers.

For the Christians of Iraq, indeed, for all Iraqis who have been killed or otherwise persecuted for their religious affiliation, this would mean exonerating the Islamist purveyors of holy war, Sunni or Shiite, who incite against one another and against non-Muslims. It would mean “moving forward” without ever confronting the Islamist theologies of murder, rape and genocide, whose adherents have forever disfigured Iraq.
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Rayyan al-Shawaf is a freelance writer and reviewer based in Beirut. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.