After U.S. departure, a shaky Christmas present for Iraq Christians

Author: Kevin Clarke
The good news, of course, for America is that U.S. troops are returning home and the costly adventure in Iraq drawing to a close. According to the timetable endorsed by Iraq and the United States, virtually all U.S. troops should be on their way home by the end of December.

The bad news? What is to become of the remnant minority of Christians still in Iraq once all the Americans gone? Most have already fled. I was told by Iraqi refugees in Jordan that those who remain are too sick, too old or too poor to leave.

Nearly 200 Christians have been killed since the U.S. invasion in March 2003 and more than 50 churches bombed. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, although Christians made up only three percent of Iraq’s population, they account for nearly half of the refugees leaving Iraq.

Many have fled to Syria and Jordan or overseas. Many are also in self-imposed exile in the de facto Kurdistan of northern Iraq, but even there safety is beginning to appear uncertain. New outbreaks of violence this month against Christians serve as warning of what they may have in store. The latest attacks began in the northern city of Zakho and spread to several other cities.

According to local media, the attacks began after a sermon Friday by local Muslim cleric, who railed against massage parlors in the community. A mob then destoyed not only a massage parlor but more than two-dozen other businesses, including Christian-owned liquor stores and hair salons. Their owners reportedly later were threatened with death if they reopened.

Members of Congress seem aware of the plight of Iraq’s Christians, but is there anything that can practically be done to protect them in the aftermath of such a thorough American withdrawal? Thirty-seven House legislators from both sides of the aisle signed a letter to President Obama on Dec. 9, requesting that he intercede on behalf of persecuted Iraq Christians and other religious minorities during his Dec. 11 meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“The Iraqi Government needs to understand,” wrote Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., on behalf of his colleagues, “that the protection and preservation of these communities will be a key component of our future bilateral relations and critical to our alliance, given its own centrality to our own basic values.”

Back in 2009 the Assyrian Universal Alliance asked U.S. leaders to consider the creation of an autonomous region in Iraq for Assyrian Christians and other religious minorities suffering from persecution.

“With so many Assyrians having fled Iraq, the very survival of the Assyrian nation hangs in the balance,” the group wrote in a February 2009 letter to President Obama. “Our numbers are dwindling and our communities are being shattered. Should this continue, the world will witness the demise of one of its most ancient and historically significant nations.” Conditions have only gotten worse since then but the idea of a safe zone for Christians is not being seriously entertained by anybody. Maybe it’s an idea worth reviving and quickly.

Iraq’s Christian’s are preparing for a low-key to invisible Christmas this year. “Christmas under siege” some church officials told Great Britain’s Aid to the Church in Need. Traditions will be quietly kept in the privacy of family homes; for safety Christmas Masses will only be celebrated during the day. The future of Iraq’s Christians as a vibrant community in the region is seriously in doubt.

Msgr. Jean Benjamin Sleiman, Latin Archbishop of Baghdad, told Aid to the Church that some Christians continue to live in the most dangerous areas such as Baghdad and Mosul where they are considered ‘dimmi’ (infidels), therefore legally and socially inferior, and even forced to pay the ‘jizya’, the tax due from the non-Muslim minorities in order to practice their faith.

According to the bishop, the life of Christians is quieter in Kurdistan, “but the enormous socio-cultural and economic difficulties push the faithful to emigrate. Apart from these “islands of coexistence,” he said the Christian community is subjected to the Muslim majority, “helplessly witnessing crime, mafia or militia.”

“The holidays are fundamental opportunities to practice their faith,” Archbishop Sleiman said. “I hope we can celebrate them with equanimity, but it all depends on the security.”

As for the future, Archbishop Sleiman calls on the international community to support the government, “so that Iraq once again has a rule of law.”

Father Amir Jaje, Superior of the Dominicans in Baghdad, described the atmosphere in Baghdad as “tense” due to sectarian conflict and the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops. “The extremists are taking advantage of tensions to make their voices heard and the faithful are increasingly distressed,” he said.

But “there is still hope in Iraq, and our Christmas is to believe in this hope.”