BY Paul Kengor
Iraq (National Catholic Register) One very alarming report by the Assyrian International News Agency cites hundreds of killings and an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians.
The most important challenge, of course, is to try to stop the violence, a task that the current Iraqi ambassador to the Holy See, Albert Yelda â€” himself a Christian â€” is dealing with on a daily basis.
Yet, Yelda also deals with a question that analysts in the United States are struggling with, namely: Can we say for certain that the treatment of Christians in Iraq has worsened since the U.S. invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003? In other words, has there been a surge in the repression, an unintended consequence of the Bush administrationâ€™s intended liberation of the country?
Yelda was asked this question by the Register not long after returning from a requiem Mass for Father Ragheed Ganni, a Catholic priest killed by jihadists in Iraq on June 3. Father Ganni is said to have predicted that Iraq would collapse into chaos if the United States invaded.
The Register asked Yelda if Father Ganniâ€™s dire warnings were now being vindicated. â€œNo,â€ countered Yelda, â€œI donâ€™t think that is the right description for what is actually happening in Iraq. In Iraq we had 35 years of dictatorship, of oppression, of a family controlling the masses with an iron fist, as well as the mass graves, people killed on a daily basis. But they went unreported.â€
Yeldaâ€™s remarks point to a crucial caveat for trying to assess the issue of the persecution of Iraqi Christians: It is extremely difficult to know if there has been a rise in violence against Christians in Iraq because only now, after Saddam, are Iraqi Christians free to report such things, and only now are they free to leave the country.
More, it will be easier for them to make their case to be accepted elsewhere as Ã©migrÃ©s if they are rightly understood as victims of terrible treatment inside Iraq.
This situation is somewhat reminiscent of Russians Jews after the collapse of dictatorship in the Soviet Union: Once the USSR imploded in 1991, there was a massive exodus of hundreds of thousands of long-repressed Russian Jews. There were also sudden reports of anti-Semitism within Russia, reported by a newly free press, even though the reality was that Jews had it far better under Boris Yeltsin than ever before in all of Soviet (or even Russian) history.
They were finally able to talk. I recall this well, having done a series of published interviews in 1992 with a Russian Jew named Dmitri Starostin, who had the liberty to speak openly about anti-Semitism in his country. We could not have done those interviews a decade earlier.
In another post-Soviet example, it was reported throughout the Western press in the early 1990s that Russiaâ€™s transition to a free-market economy was a disaster, with a sudden spike in homelessness and unemployment.
In reality, the Soviet government had these problems prior to the transition â€” which is why the system imploded â€” but denied the fact, as official spokesmen falsely claimed 0% unemployment and homelessness under â€œutopianâ€ communism.
The point is that like the Russians of the early 1990s, Iraqis are only now free to speak the truth. So, this raises the question: What was life like for the roughly 1 million Iraqi Christians under Saddam? Not good, as was routinely documented by sources from our State Department to international human rights organizations.
Under Saddam, the importation of Christian literature to Iraq was limited or halted altogether, as was evangelization. Christian schools were confiscated by the state. A Christian who married a Muslim was required to convert to Islam. Unofficial discrimination existed in employment practices.
Like today, some Christians in Iraq had it worse in certain parts of the country, largely depending upon the relative concentration of extremist Muslim thugs. Christians in Basra, for example, throughout the 1990s complained of threats they would be raped, kidnapped, or killed for their faith. Some Christian minorities elsewhere faced forced relocation.
As recently as 2002, the Iraqi government issued a law that placed all Christian clergy and churches under the control of the Ministry of Islamic Property.
The extent to which Christians were killed for their faith by Saddamâ€™s government has never been clear; if and when such killings did occur, the information was obviously never publicized. All along, of course, there were always fanatical Muslims out of the Iraqi government who killed Christians for their faith, as is the case throughout the Middle East.
Further complicating the situation, there were actually high-level Christians who served in Saddamâ€™s government (as there are in the Iraqi government today), such as Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon, a Catholic. Hamdoon did not like Saddamâ€™s Iraq, and he was not free to leave. In fact, he tried to escape the country but was always kept under strict surveillance and was deeply fearful of what would happen to his wife and family.
Saddam was forced out of Baghdad by U.S. troops, fleeing to a hole dug under a farmhouse near Tikrit. On April 20, 2003, shortly after Saddam fled, and as repressed Iraqi Shiites Muslims readied for a long obstructed pilgrimage to Karbala, Iraqi Catholics celebrated Easter freely for the first time in a generation.
One such Christian was Selma Dawood, a 75-year-old widow who lived in a small farming town in northern Iraq called Qaraqosh. Residents claim that the ancient town is 99% Assyrian Christian. Its landscape is marked by two towering Assyrian Christian churches, one for Catholics and the other for Orthodox believers.
Almost overnight in late April 2003, there were finally more churches in Qaraqosh than murals of Saddam, the latter of which townspeople rapidly removed as the â€œgod-manâ€ ran away from U.S. troops.
Dawood, ironically, had a world-famous relative: She was the aunt of Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz. He was the top Christian in Saddamâ€™s government, and a shameful apologist who incessantly lied to the world about the man and his weapons.
â€œLet them arrest him,â€ said Selma Dawood of her sisterâ€™s son. â€œItâ€™s not important to me.â€ Asked if her nephew had ever lifted a finger to help Iraqâ€™s Christians, she responded with a terse â€œNo. Zero. Zero. Heâ€™s very, very bad.â€
Symptomatic of Saddamâ€™s regime, Aziz did not protect Christians, and now his aunt saw no need to try to protect him. Azizâ€™ role in a â€œcriminal regime,â€ according to Dawood, had not made the family proud. She had this to say about the American-led action: â€œSaddam is finished and we are okay. We are very happy and merciful to God and the Americans, our uncles. God bless America. God protect America.â€
Appraisals like these from the Iraqi side abounded in April 2003. As I compiled samples for a chapter in a book I was writing on George W. Bush, my editor made me choose a half-dozen or so examples among dozens at my disposal.
In short, Iraqi Christians were not sad to see the end of the rule of Saddam, who was arguably the worldâ€™s most brutal dictator. Perhaps most important, even when not targeted for their faith, they were targeted for their mere humanity.
Indeed, in the general sweep of things, Iraqi Christians were just as likely as Iraqi Muslims to have their children locked up in dog cages, to have their wives raped or beheaded or hung upside down in front of their family for hours as they menstruated (an actual interrogation technique under Saddam), to have their ears surgically amputated for refusing military conscription, to be subjected to chemical baths or the attachment of electrodes to their genitals, to be fed feet first into large industrial meat grinders, or to be lynched from lampposts or simply machine gunned.
A surreal December 2003 Gallup poll asked Baghdad residents a bizarre, tragic survey question that could only have been possible in a country run by Saddam Hussein: had a member of their household been executed by Saddamâ€™s regime? Amazingly, 6.6% said Yes. Based on that percentage, Gallup estimated that 61,000 individuals in Baghdad alone had been killed under Saddam.
Execution, Gallup aptly noted, was Saddamâ€™s chief weapon of mass destruction.
For the record, various authorities, from the U.S. administrative authority in Iraq to human-rights groups like Amnesty International to the exiled Iraqi National Congress estimate that anywhere from 300,000 to 1,000,000 Iraqis were shot and shoveled into mass graves. The crimes then, too, went unreported.
Here again, Iraqi Christians were victims, not so much as Christians in a Muslim majority nation, but as humans among other humans crushed under the jackboot of a bloodthirsty despot.
Saddam Hussein was an equal opportunity torturer.
So, all of this is a caution in today assessing a continuing bad situation for Iraqâ€™s Christians â€” one for which American Christians who supported the war have a special obligation to not be silent and to not stick their head in the sand.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His upcoming biography of Ronald Reagan adviser. William Clark, The Judge, will be released this fall by Ignatius Press.