Iraqi Christians Today! Where to Now?

3d1.jpgWritten by Harry Hagopian
Friday, 08 August 2008

Last week, a radio journalist called me and inquired whether I had spotted an article that had been published on page 19 of the Daily Telegraph. When I professed ignorance – I am not much of a Daily Telegraph reader – she proceeded to inform me that this piece was authored by a foreign affairs correspondent called Damien McElroy with the title Iraq’s Christians form new militias to combat Islamic extremists.

Although I was a tad dismayed by the tabloid-style sensationalism of the title, I have no grounds to doubt the overall integrity of the information. After all, I am quite conscious of the precarious situation impacting indigenous Christians in Iraq today. The village of Karamlis that McElroy refers to in his piece lies less than 20 miles east of the northern provincial capital of Mosul which has become increasingly inhospitable to Christians. Readers might perhaps recall that Archbishop Paulos Farai Rahha was kidnapped and later died there, and this area contains many churches – the likes of the Chaldean Catholic Mar Addai church – that constitute ineradicable signs of Christian witness. Yet, the many kidnappings, as well as constant threats and coercions against Christians, simply negate the sanguine picture we are fed of unstoppable democracy-driven and freedom-friendly values that are ostensibly spawning all over Iraq.

Indeed, many of us who have been following the daily staple of tragedies experienced by all Iraqis of all confessions, including the ever-shrinking minority communities, would surely admit that the plight of Christians has been alarming. Here is a community that is two millennia old and counted over 800,000 members in 1993. Yet, today, its numbers have at least been halved and many of its harassed members have either emigrated to the West, are refugees in neighbouring Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, or have become internally displaced in safer zones.

However, despite those recurrent incidents targeting Christians and other minorities, it is one thing for me to admit that they are caught up in the midst of ferocious Sunni-Shi’i political-ideological wars for the future profile of the country, and another to suggest that Iraqi Christians should take up arms and form militias in their (admittedly distressed) efforts to defend their beleaguered communities from an onslaught by Islamist extremists. Why?

Unless Christians are careful as to how they react to the hardships challenging them on a daily basis, they could end up as cannon fodder and be sacrificed on the altar of expediency by the major players in the country. After all, indigenous Christians are small in numbers, and do not have access to the kinds of arms and wherewithal that would protect them against onslaughts from extremist elements. Upping the ante is most likely to provoke more retaliation and engender more isolation, especially when neither Western powers and coalition forces, nor Islamist radicals and salafist bullies, are truly interested in those communities that have kept the mosaic of the Middle East so diverse, and therefore so rich, for centuries. From the invaders and occupiers of Iraq to its own political factions, religious extremists and self-serving bigots, hardly anybody is paying much attention to their welfare since doing so might well intersect larger political agendas. True, previous petitions for help have fallen on deaf ears, yet militias that espouse a show of power might exacerbate the situation further let alone amplify internal dissensions amongst Christians.

Does this mean that I am advocating submission, or attempting to deny communities across the whole country their inalienable right to self-defence? Not really, since my biblical interpretation of Jesus’ teachings on meekness does not translate into an unfettered invitation to turn the other cheek, be mistreated, brutalised and violated by others – be those “others” next-door community neighbours, unwelcome Samaritans or total strangers. However, one major concern relates to the broader long-term consequences of such protectionist tendencies – whether through the taking up of arms, or the carving out of Christian zones in, say, the Nineveh Plain – and the dreadful probability that they could boomerang and worsen the current plight of Christians with nobody willing or able to succour them.

Yet, this is where mainline Muslim religious scholars and practitioners as well as human and minorities’ rights organisations, must spare no effort to help tackle the critical perils facing communities such as Christians who are being viewed as power-building and money-making pawns in a vile and irreligious game entitled ‘the future of Iraq’.

Sadly, Christians in some parts of the Arab Middle East – from Iraq to Egypt and even Gaza today – are increasingly finding themselves in overcharged sectarian environments where religious identity, no longer common citizenship, has become the norm. In radicalised settings, those local Christians whose ministry has always been one of bridge-building and reconciliation could one day become ‘open season’ for victimisation. This is why it is imperative to find ways whereby all those Muslims and Christians of good will together claw their way out of this quagmire. Otherwise, everyone could be sucked into an untenable situation that would eventually rebound against the whole region, re-map its myriad realities and drag all its peoples into the creeping pitfalls of danger, despair and darkness.

Dr Harry Hagopian
International Lawyer & Political Analyst
London (UK) © hbv-H @ August 2008

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