Christian minority needs protection

Ayesha Awan
We all have at least a vague idea about Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian tensions. Words most Americans had not heard prior to the 2003 invasion – Sunni, Shia, Kurd – are now regularly in news stories, usually in conjunction with describing victims and attackers.

Aside from our general lack of understanding about the conflict between these groups, American policy-makers and mainstream media have ignored perhaps the most marginalized minority in Iraq – the community of Iraqi Christians.

The Christians of Iraq have lived there nearly 2,000 years, almost since the time of Christ. Prior to the first Gulf War in 1991, their numbers were estimated at about 1 million; that figure had fallen to an estimated 800,000 by the 2003 American invasion, and since then the numbers are said to have fallen even more dramatically.

From the 2003 invasion onward, Christians have been increasingly targeted by extremist Sunni militant groups, some linked to al-Qaeda. They have found themselves the victims of kidnappings for ransom, killings, extortion attempts and other threats. Priests, churches and businesses owned by Christians have been targeted.

In 2004 and 2005, repeated attacks on Christian targets in Baghdad and Mosul – where most of Iraq’s Christians live – occurred during a time of an overall decrease in security in Iraq, yet proportionally, more Christians fled the country than other groups.

Despite America’s efforts at taming sectarian violence among the groups we are all now familiar with – Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – it appears as if little to nothing is being done to aid Iraq’s Christians.

Yes, countless refugees have fled Iraq in the years following the initial invasion, but the fact that Christians have fled in disproportionate numbers means disproportionate targeting and lack of aid. As one Iraqi priest in Bartella put it, “All I get from the American officials who visit me is empty talk and souvenirs.”

The latest blow to the Iraqi Christian community comes not from extremist militants, but from the Iraqi government itself. The parliament enacted a new law which removed the quota system it previously had in place to ensure Christians and other religious minorities were represented in parliament. Parliament claims they did this because of a lack of accurate census data available to help determine the quotas.

To the Christian community, it appears rightly so that this is a government-sanctioned measure deliberately enacted to marginalize them, perhaps even to encourage them to leave Iraq. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets after Sunday church services and demanded a reinstatement of the quota system.

They say that an accurate measure of a country’s democracy and liberties is how it treats its minorities. While it’s glaringly obvious that Iraq has serious issues with even its major ethnic groups, the situation of Iraqi Christians is even more disgraceful.

It was bad enough when the authorities – Iraqi and American – turned a deliberate blind eye to the maltreatment of Christians by militant fringe groups, but now the government is effectively sanctioning their disenfranchisement and marginalization