Iraqi Christians Seek Western Help Amid Wave of ‘Religious Cleansing

1.jpgBy Patrick Goodenough
Iraqi policemen stand guard outside an evangelical Protestant church in Baghdad on September 9, 2010. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

( – Iraqi Christian leaders are lobbying European lawmakers Tuesday as part of an international campaign aimed at getting Western governments to take the minority’s predicament seriously.
Advocates argue that members of the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in 2003 have a particular responsibility to put pressure on today’s Iraqi leaders to provide security for Christians directly targeted by terrorists.
Last week Iraqi Christians, in keeping with local tradition, marked a 40-day commemoration of those killed in the deadliest single act of violence against the minority since the fall of Saddam.
The Oct. 31 attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church killed 53 people – two priests, 44 congregants and seven Iraqi security force members. Five terrorists also were killed.
In claiming responsibility, al-Qaeda in Iraq called Christians “legitimate targets” who would be killed “wherever they can be found.” More deadly attacks have taken place since.
Christian denominations in Iraq include Chaldeans, Syrian Catholics, Assyrians and evangelicals. Some trace their origins to the earliest years of Christianity, but the minority has been shrinking as Christians leave for Syria, Turkey and Western countries that are home to expatriate communities.
A 1987 census recorded 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Barnabas Fund, a charity working with Christians in Islamic countries, says the number has dropped to “perhaps as low as 400,000 today.”
The delegation visiting the European Parliament this week is led by the Syrian Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Georges Casmoussa, who said ahead of the visit that while Christians were grateful to countries offering refuge, “we don’t want to flee and abandon Iraq. We want to continue living here, but in peace.”
Last weekend representatives from 16 Christian organizations met in Erbil for an Assyrian Universal Alliance (AUA) congress and reiterated longstanding demands for a secure haven – “a province for the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac people in the Nineveh Plain in which they would constitute the majority of the population.”
An English translation of the meeting declaration, provided to CNSNews Tuesday, said the autonomous region must include “an indigenous parliament and a security force.”
The Nineveh Plain is a rural area near Mosul which formed the historic homeland of Assyrians.
Barnabas Fund director Patrick Sookhdeo quoted Monday from a letter sent by a church leader working with Iraqi Christian refugees in Syria, outlining the reality faced by many still in Iraq.
“Their conditions are no longer bearable,” the letter said. “The people are living behind locked doors, they are compelled to take long leaves of absence from work, in Mosul and other cities, as a result of the dangers they face at work,” the letter said. “The universities are almost empty of Christian students, as are the schools. In some of the cities even the streets are almost empty of Christians.”
Sookhdeo said governments and Christians in the West need to hear the message urgently.
“This Christmas the Christians in Iraq face an unfolding tragedy. The past seven years of war have seen their community devastated. Now they face a wave of attacks that has reduced many of them not just to abject poverty, but also to terrible fear,” he said.
“What is crystal clear is that the international community cannot wash its hands of this beleaguered minority.”
‘No Obama policy’
Christians say their plight is being ignored by the Shi’ite government in Baghdad – and by its Western supporters.
Advocacy groups demonstrated near the White House on December 4, calling on the Obama administration to do more to support the minority.
Campaigners frequently point to a letter then Sen. Barack Obama sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in September 2007, asking what steps the Bush administration was taking to protect – and to press the government in Baghdad to protect – Iraq’s Christians.
“The severe violations of religious freedom faced by members of these indigenous communities, and their potential extinction from their ancient homeland, is deeply alarming in light of our mission to bring freedom to the Iraqi freedom,” the Democratic presidential hopeful wrote.
In contrast to that expression of concern, a brief White House statement issued in response to the Our Lady of Salvation attack did not even identify the victims as Christians or note that the killings took place in a church.
(Ten days later, after further violence including bombings targeting Shi’ites in Najaf and Karbala, National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer issued a condemnatory statement which referred both to those attacks and to the earlier ones “against Christians in Baghdad in their homes and in their churches.”)
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center on Religious Freedom, wrote on National Review Online Monday that the “obliteration” of Iraq’s Christian presence was “an unintended consequence of the U.S. invasion but has never been factored in as a U.S. strategic concern.”
“There is no Obama policy, not even a safe-haven or refugee policy, designed specifically to help Iraq’s Christians as they confront religious cleansing.”
‘Climate of impunity’
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body, has been calling since late 2008 for Iraq to be blacklisted for religious freedom violations, without success.
The 1998 International Religious Freedom Act provides for the designation of governments violating religious freedom or tolerating abuses as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs), paving the way for policy options including sanctions.
Iraq was an early addition to the CPC list but was removed a year after Saddam was ousted. As difficulties grew for Christians the USCIRF recommended that Iraq be returned to the list.
In its latest annual report, the USCIRF repeated its call for CPC designation, saying Iraq’s government “continues to commit and tolerate severe abuses of freedom of religion.”
“Perpetrators of such attacks [on religious minorities] are rarely identified, investigated, or punished, creating a climate of impunity,” it said.
In its annual religious freedom report, issued last month, the State Department confirmed that few perpetrators of attacks on Christians were punished, but also noted that the Iraqi government “has called for tolerance and acceptance of all religious minorities.”
“[T]he prime minister, along with other high-ranking government officials and political party leaders, made numerous public statements in support of the country’s religious minority communities,” it said.
At the report’s release, the department’s top human rights official, Michael Posner, said the U.S. government had “repeatedly spoken to government leaders in Iraq” about the situation and would “continue to be vigilant.”
‘We helped create the situation’
In a country that joined the U.S. in invading Iraq and has a sizeable Assyrian expatriate community, Australia’s government is also a target of campaigners.
AUA representatives lobbied the government in Canberra recently, urging it to call on Baghdad to establish “an Assyrian autonomous region in the ancestral homeland.”
The AUA has won support from a federal lawmaker who is also a whip in the ruling Labor Party, Chris Hayes, who in a speech in parliament last month called for a more compassionate response to Iraqi Christians seeking refuge in Australia.
“Unless we can assure these people of their future safety free of threat or terrorism, then as a group they certainly must be considered to be refugeed from their traditional lands and must be considered for repatriation,” he said.
“By being part of the coalition of the willing we helped create this situation, and it is now our responsibility, with our other coalition partners, to deal with the consequences.”
AUA deputy secretary-general Hermiz Shahen told CNSNews Tuesday that although he believed most lawmakers the organization had met with were sympathetic, statements issued by the foreign ministry over the past seven years were “unpromising.”
In a letter to the AUA last June, the foreign ministry said Australian officials in Canberra and in Baghdad “take every opportunity” to raise concerns about minorities with the government of Iraq.