Iraq’s Christians See Putin As Savior

Reeling from regional developments and disillusioned with the West, some Iraqi Christians are looking to Russia for support.

After a decade of church bombings, targeted killings, and anti-Christian workplace discrimination, Ramy Youssef has finally tired of Iraq’s halting progress and is intent on emigrating.

“I don’t want to leave. I don’t want these terrorists to do what no one’s ever done before: push Assyrians out of our historic homeland, but I can’t work like this,” said the fresh-faced IT technician, his voice rising, as he sipped tea in his cousin’s Erbil liquor store a month after death threats forced him to abandon his business in Baghdad.

Youssef will be the last of his immediate family to jet off—joining roughly two-thirds of Iraq’s pre-war population of 1.5 million Christians who’ve fled abroad or trudged north to Kurdistan. Before he goes, though, he’s keen to set the record straight and settle some old scores.

“This is America’s fault. It’s the Muslims who are killing us, but this never would have happened if the West hadn’t turned our lives upside down,” he fumed. “Maybe we’ll be able to return one day if we have proper allies.”

Enter Putin stage right.

As far as some of his Iraqi co-religionists are concerned, there’s a ready-made alternative to American influence out there and they’re frantically trying to solicit its support.

“Russia proved through history that it’s the only defender of Christians,” said Ashur Giwargis, who heads the Assyrian Patriotic Movement (APM), which for two years has energetically lobbied the Kremlin to support an independent Assyrian Christian state in northern Iraq.

Until recently, the Beirut-based exile and his colleagues, who are scattered among the global Iraqi diaspora, had little to show for their efforts, but in January, as Western-Russian tensions escalated over Ukraine, Giwargis was summoned to Moscow to meet government officials.

ISIS’s rampage through the historically Christian Nineveh province, its gutting of the Holy Spirit Church, and its use of the ancient Mar Behnam monastery as a base for militant operations threatens to trigger an additional exodus.

“They assured their support for the Assyrian cause, but we’re looking for a serious Russian stand in the international arena,” he said.

While they wait, APM members are busy currying favor by disseminating the Kremlin’s message, appearing at Russian embassy events, and cheering its foreign policy maneuvers elsewhere in the world.

“With the growing Americo-European incitement for the Republic of Ukraine to join the European Union … the Crimean parliament’s decision to join the Russian Federation came as pleasant news for the oppressed Christian peoples around the world,” read a public letter of congratulations dispatched to the Russian Embassy in Lebanonin Mid-March.

“Russian professional diplomacy has proven able to contain conspiracies against vulnerable peoples and states,” Giwargis wrote in another missive.

There are few assurances that Russia—which is already held in low regard bymuch of the Arab World for its stance on Syria—will further jeopardize its relations across the region by throwing its weight behind Iraq’s Christians. Nor, for that matter, does APM’s courting of Putin necessarily command serious support among many Iraqi Christians, of whom only 10-15 percent favor its pro-active approach, according to several church officials.

But the APM’s fishing for alternative patrons is illustrative of the tremendous anger many Eastern Christians feel towards the West for its perceived indifference to their plight.

“The West is not Christian,” raged Aziz Emmanuel al-Zebari, a Chaldean Catholic church official, when we met in Erbil’s buzzy Christian quarter on a blazingly hot Ascension Day late in May. “They destroyed us by installing a government based on Islamic sects in which we have no place,” he added, as a sermon in Aramaic rang out from the distinctive Ziggurat-style cathedral in the background.

Amid all the bombast, Iraq’s Christians have some legitimate grievances. Once protected by Saddam—though subject to the same tyrannical rulings as the rest of the population—the community was left brutally exposed when the civil war that followed the US invasion of 2003 devolved into bitter sectarian strife.

Many Christians had initially rallied to the U.S.-led coalition’s side, enlisting as army translators and hailing its early successes, but as Western troops outgrew their welcome, Christians were damned by their association with the occupying powers.

“Muslims thought we were like the Americans, and so as they became more unpopular, our problems increased,” remembered Ramy Youssef, whose once friendly Baghdad neighbors ostracized his family as the occupation dragged on. (Some had it much worse. The U.S.’s hiring of a number of Lebanese Christian interpreters meant that anyone with a Lebanese accent was deemed suspect, and a number of visiting Beirutis were allegedly mistakenly killed.)

Among the many charges leveled at the U.S. and its partners is that it failed to exercise a duty of care towards a minority whose secure position it had undermined.

“When everything got violent, the Shiites received help from Iran, the Sunnis had the Gulf, and us? Well, we were left unprotected,” said an Erbil-based civil engineer who asked to withhold his name.

The Iraqi Christian insistence that the U.S. and its coalition partners have done nothing to right past wrongs doesn’t ring entirely true though.

Several hundred thousand Iraqi Christians took advantage of loosened immigration laws to move to America.The California diocese has mushroomed from 30,000 to 70,000 people since 2003, while Michigan alone has taken in over 120,000 Chaldeans and Assyrians.

But here too, some Iraqi Christians have taken issue with American policy.

“In opening its doors, the U.S. is weakening those are who left behind,” said al-Zebari, who’s fearful that a further diminution in Christian numbers might lead to awkward questions about the Christian quota of five seats in the Baghdad and Kurdish regional parliaments.

Meanwhile, Putin’s continuing defense of Assad in neighboring Syria, at a time of peak unrest in Iraq, is seen as an admirable demonstration of Russia’s commitment to minority rights.

A sponsor like the Russians never would have allowed the Iraqi government to run roughshod over its Christian citizens, al-Zebari believes.

“They’ve always stood up for Christians. I’m sure they’d do more for us in our ancestral lands,” he reasoned, echoing Giwargis’ talking points.

But even if Russia were to somehow provide assistance, it remains to be seen whether there would be many Christians left to aid.

2013 was a good year—with only 500 families fleeing abroad from northern Iraq, as opposed to roughly 6500 families a year absconding in the immediate aftermath of the invasion—but ISIS’s rampage through the historically Christian Nineveh province, its gutting of the Holy Spirit Church, and its use of the ancient Mar Behnam monastery as a base for militant operations threatens to trigger an additional exodus.

In the meantime, it’s far from clear what—if any—effect, Russia’s increasingly cozy relationship with Middle Eastern Christians will have on the regional dynamic.

Egypt’s signing of a $2 billion defense deal with Russia in February raised hackles in Washington, which has equipped much of the Egyptian military since the 1970s, while Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s call for Russian jets to halt ISIS’s advance after the Obama Administration rejected his initial approach threatens to muddle an already complicated mess.