Iraq’s Holy Innocents

[John F. Cullinan]
Spare a thought — and perhaps also a prayer — for Iraq’s beleaguered Christians, who yesterday observed the somber Feast of the Holy Innocents. Perhaps nowhere else does this particular occasion cut closer to the bone: In Iraq, Christians mourn their friends, the most recent martyrs for the faith, on the same day that Christians around the world are called to remember the Church’s very first martyrs, the infants slaughtered en masse in Bethlehem on Herod’s orders after the birth of Jesus.

Today is also an appropriate time for all Americans, believer and unbelievers alike, to consider their moral responsibilities toward an invisible minority caught up in a forgotten war. After all, one of the unintended — and unacknowledged — consequences of Iraq’s liberation in 2003 was the swift and ongoing demise of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities. While this tragedy was unforeseen, it was by no means unforeseeable, if only U.S. policymakers had paid due attention to Iraq’s complex religious landscape and recent history. Worse yet, U.S. officials have deliberately refused to take any steps to safeguard Iraq’s persecuted Christians — or even to acknowledge their plight — for fear of being seen as aiding unpopular and unfashionable religious minorities.

This policy of malign neglect helps explain why so few Americans are even aware that Iraq still remains a rich ethnic and religious mosaic beyond the simple tripartite division of all Iraqis into three warring tribes: Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds. Fewer still are aware that Christianity in Mesopotamia dates from the mid-first century, when local tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas (the same doubting Thomas who appears in John’s Gospel) founded what became the Church of the East, the only enduring Christian community formed outside the borders of the Roman empire during apostolic times. Thomas’s mission predates the arrival of Islam by six centuries and serves as a needed reminder that early Christianity was an essentially Eastern phenomenon.

Today, the vast majority of Iraqi Christians share common roots in the Church of the East, which split into two branches in the 16th century, one Roman Catholic (Chaldean) and the other essentially Orthodox (Assyrian). Both churches worship partly in Arabic and partly in Aramaic, the same language that Jesus spoke. Smaller Christian denominations include Syriac Christians (mainly Roman Catholic, but also Orthodox), Latin Rite Roman Catholics and other historic Middle Eastern churches (mainly Orthodox and Armenian), and some Protestants (mostly Anglicans) and Evangelicals.

It was not so long ago that Iraqi Christians belonging to all these churches played a unique and vital role in the common life of modern Iraq. Their contributions, both institutional and individual, once formed an irreplaceable part of the fabric of Iraqi life. And their contributions in turn played a wholly disproportionate role in relation to their actual numbers in an overwhelmingly Muslim society.

On the one hand, there was a web of church institutions — schools, hospitals, clinics, and orphanages — that served all Iraqis regardless of faith. Of these, none was more prominent than Baghdad College, a remarkable Jesuit preparatory school for boys that turned out a disproportionate share of Iraq’s political and cultural elite between 1931 and 1968. As with most other church schools, fully half the student body were Muslim. Even today, 40 years after the American priests and seminarians were expelled and all private schools nationalized in the wake of the Six-Day War, Baghdad College’s legacy endures. In the December 2005 parliamentary elections, three of the four leading candidates for prime minister (all Muslims, of course) were former students. So too are many other distinguished Iraqis, such as Kanan Makiya, whose 1989 classic Republic of Fear shattered the wall of silence around the Baathist dictatorship. Yet this one school’s splendid example is by no means a strictly Iraqi or purely historical phenomenon, as Christian schools continue to educate an outsized share of local Muslim elites in places as diverse as Egypt (Gamal Mubarak) or Pakistan (the late Benazir Bhutto).

On the other hand, there was and remains individual Christian witness to values that are in notably short supply in Iraq nowadays, especially respect for one’s neighbor regardless of faith and willingness to resolve disputes without recourse to violence. These particular values are ones their Muslim neighbors most often acknowledge and admire, as I learned while living and working as a Catholic seminarian in Jordan a decade ago. And they are precisely the same ideals Pope Benedict XVI cited in his annual Christmas message on Saturday:
How can we forget the troubled situation in Iraq and the little flock of Christians which lives in the region? At times it is subject to violence and injustice, but it remains determined to make its own contribution to the building of a society opposed to the logic of conflict and the rejection of one’s neighbor.
Yet these same values have made Iraqi Christians easy targets for Sunni and Shiite extremists and common criminals in the utter collapse of law and order that followed the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. Unlike their Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish neighbors, Iraqi Christians have no private militias, no powerful foreign patrons — and no fighting ideology like the political Islam of the Muslim Brotherhood or its Shiite counterparts. They are thus the only group in Iraq without blood on their hands, holy innocents caught up in an unholy war.

Last year, I wrote about how practically every Christian neighborhood, parish, or family was repeatedly forced to pay protection money (jizya) to avoid exile, murder, or forced conversion to Islam. These evils were universally justified by their perpetrators on the basis of the same Koranic verses dealing with subject peoples, but they were seldom if ever publicly denounced as a perversion of Muslim faith by Iraq’s influential Muslim clergy.

This year, Iraq’s dwindling Christian communities are still being targeted on the basis of their faith. That is especially the case in Mosul, long the most lawless and violent place in Iraq. By an unhappy coincidence, Mosul is also located in the ancestral heartland of Iraqi Christianity, and is thus the last refuge (short of exile) for Christians fleeing targeted violence in Baghdad, Basra, and other places.

Mosul is therefore a target-rich environment. In December alone, at least seven churches, convents, and schools have been bombed, claiming dozens of lives, including the latest holy innocent, an eight-day-old baby girl. Iraq’s central government deserves credit for dispatching some 3,000 additional police after a similar spate of bombings and attacks in October, but their presence has brought little improvement as Christians continue to flee Mosul for overcrowded and underdeveloped villages such as Qaraqosh in the adjacent Nineveh plain. Meanwhile, the situation around Kirkuk, also in northern Iraq, remains nearly as dire for Christians caught up in the Arab-Kurdish struggle for control of the area’s oil fields.

While the Iraqi government has belatedly taken some modest steps to ease the suffering of Iraqi Christians, the U.S. government’s consistent policy of studied and shameful indifference forms rare common ground between the Bush and Obama administrations. It is an indelible stain on American honor that two administrations did nothing to assist, much less protect, a beleaguered religious minority. Such was not the case in the Balkans a decade ago, when the Clinton administration came to the aid of embattled Muslim minorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo with decisive military force in similar circumstances. In Iraq, however, America’s unmet moral obligations were and are the direct consequence of the security vacuum arising from the American-led destruction of Saddam’s Republic of Fear.

When pressed by religious-freedom advocates, Bush-administration officials invariably ducked responsibility by claiming that overall security improvements, beginning with the 2007 surge, would trickle down to Iraq’s most vulnerable and helpless minorities. The Obama administration takes the same hands-off approach in October’s annual State Department report on religious freedom: “The ‘surge’ by the Multinational Forces in Iraq, in coordination with Iraqi Security Force operations, reduced the overall level of violence in the country; however, significant effects were slow to trickle down to the country’s minority communities.” But the real reason for inaction, as several senior Bush-administration officials admitted to me off the record, was that being seen to help Christians was simply too controversial at home and in the Muslim world. It was a matter of scarce political capital better spent elsewhere, I was told.

A couple of weeks ago, a Chaldean-American friend of mine raised the issue of American responsibility for the plight of his brothers and sisters at a public forum convened by a mid-level State Department official. According to the Detroit Free Press, this official “said he couldn’t comment on whether Iraqi Christians were hurt by the U.S.-led war.” “I can’t answer that,” he said. “Let’s leave that to the historians.”

On the same day that my friend was try to get a straight answer from the State Department, more than 120 Christian leaders met in Baghdad to issue yet another urgent plea for targeted security assistance and development aid. Similar pleas for equally modest measures have long fallen on deaf ears, not least in Kurdish-controlled areas, where the treatment of Christians seeking refuges leaves a lot to be desired.

Meanwhile, the plight of Iraq’s surviving Christians worsens. In churches around the world today, Christians will hear the passage from Matthew’s Gospel (2:13-18) that recounts the slaughter of the holy innocents and ends with these words of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loudly lamenting:
it was Rachel weeping for her children,
refusing to be comforted because they were no more

The time is fast approaching when Iraqi Christians are no more.

— John F. Cullinan, a regular NRO contributor, has written frequently about Iraq’s religious dynamics since 2003.