Attack Highlights Unrelenting Plight of Iraq’s Christians

651041.jpgBy Patrick Goodenough, International Editor
Medics in a hospital in Irbil tend to a victim of a bomb attack that targeted Christians in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Sunday, May 2, 2010. (AP Photo/Yahya Ahmed) ( – Iraq’s embattled Christian minority came under attack again on Sunday, when a double bombing near the northern city of Mosul targeted a convoy of buses carrying Christian students, injuring scores of them.

Ninawa provincial authorities said a shopkeeper nearby was killed in the attack – a roadside blast followed by a car bombing – on Sunday morning. Around 70 students were hurt in the blasts.

The students were traveling in convoy to Mosul University, because it was considered a safer way to get them to classes after previous attacks on Christians. The attack occurred near a checkpoint manned by U.S. and Iraqi soldiers as well as troops from the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region.

Iraq’s Assyrian Christians are adherents of denominations including the Chaldean Catholic and Syriac Orthodox churches.

The community, which traces its origins to the early years of Christianity two millennia ago, has been dwindling in numbers over the past two decades, a trend researchers attributed initially to difficulties experienced after the 1991 Gulf War but said accelerated since the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003.

The last official census, in 1987, recorded 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. By 2003 estimates of its size ranged from 1.2 million to about 800,000. There are no definitive figures, but some experts believe the community may have been cut by half since then. Killings, kidnappings, harassment and church bombings have helped to drive the exodus.

More than a dozen Christians in Iraq have died violently since the beginning of 2010, the National Council of Churches in the U.S. said in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates last week.

A bipartisan statutory body set up to advise the executive branch and Congress on religious freedom issues, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), wants the U.S. government to toughen its response to the situation in Iraq.

The International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 empowers the Secretary of State to name foreign governments that violate citizens’ religious freedom (or allow them to be violated by other parties) “countries of particular concern” (CPCs). Designation allows the U.S. to take measures, including sanctions, against governments that engage in or tolerate serious abuses.

In the very first annual assessment issued under the IRFA, in 1999, the Clinton Administration identified Iraq as one of a small group of CPCs. The majority of the early reports on Iraq focused on the Sunni regime’s harsh treatment of the Shi’ite majority, with far less attention paid to the small Christian minority.

Iraq’s CPC designation was retained during the early years of the Bush administration, but a year after Saddam’s removal Baghdad was removed from the list in mid-2004.

Ironically, the situation for Iraq’s Christians has undoubtedly grown worse since then, and the USCIRF, a body created under the IRFA, has been urging a more robust response from Washington.

The Commission at first recommended that Iraq be added to a second-tier watchlist – one step short of CPC designation – but in late 2008 it recommended that its CPC designation be restored. (Four of the nine commissioners dissented, saying that religious minorities were being targeted not by the Iraqi government, but by “terrorist and insurgent groups.” The four argued that the requirements of the IRGA for CPC designation were met, although they agreed with their fellow commissioners that the government was not doing enough “to address the alarming plight of Iraq’s Christian and other religious minority communities.”)

When the USCIRF released its latest annual report, late last week, it criticized the administration for not following its recommendations to restore CPC designation for Iraq, as well as for Pakistan, Nigeria, Vietnam and Turkmenistan.

The Commission also questioned the Obama administration’s commitment to promoting religious freedom, noting among other things that it had still not nominated an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, a position also established by the IRFA.

In the National Council of Churches letter to Clinton and Gates, church leaders appealed to them to urge the Iraqi authorities to do more to protect Iraqi Christians.

They said the U.S. should also encourage the preservation of religious and ethnic diversity in Iraq.

“Our concern is now particularly acute because it is possible that tensions will increase as various political forces continue to vie for power following the recent [Mar. 7] elections,” the letter said. “We fear that a growing climate of mistrust and animosity will further threaten the fragile Christian community.”

A coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a former prime minister who enjoys considerable Sunni support, narrowly beat a Shi’ite one headed by incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Another Shi’ite faction came in third.

Almost two months later delays in forming a new government, because of continuing disputes about results and candidate eligibility, have raised concerns that the sectarian violence which roiled the country in 2005-2007 could return.

Under a security agreement that came into force at the beginning of last year, all U.S. combat forces are scheduled to be deployed out of Iraq by August, ahead of the end of 2011 deadline for a total withdrawal