Saving the Christians of Iraq

By Deal W. Hudson
Inside Catholic (

Iraqi Christian refugees find themselves in a particularly difficult position in the refugee camps because they have been targeted as Christians
WASHINGTON, DC (Inside Catholic) – Last month, I reported on the persecution of Christians in Iraq and the continued vulnerability of their remaining communities. Extortion and violence by Muslim extremists have driven 500,000 Christians out of Iraq — about one quarter of the 2,000,000 Iraqis who have left the country since the beginning of the Iraq War. And another 2,000,000 Iraqis are displaced within their own country.

Most of these refugees went to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt; only a relative few have settled in Europe and the United States. Sweden has taken the most Iraqi refugees — 40,000 — while the United States, which had only accepted 1,608 by the end of 2007, has implemented a program for receiving 12,000 by the end of September.

John Klink is president of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), working in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria to process refugees who want to go to a third country. I asked him why so few Iraqis have made their way to the United States.

“It’s the result of a very strong crack-down after 9/11,” he told me. “The U.S. has to make sure who these people are, which makes it very difficult for those who are truly qualified. The barrier is much higher than it used to be.”

Iraqi Christian refugees find themselves in a particularly difficult position in the refugee camps, Klink said. Because they have been targeted as Christians, “They are reluctant to identify themselves, so they don’t get work, and their children don’t go to school.” His organization has been working with these Iraqi Christian children to make sure they don’t fall behind in their education.

The special plight of Iraqi Christians is being noticed: In March, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced that France was receiving 500 refugees. This was a result of his visit to Iraq and personal meeting with the Chaldean Patriarch, Mar Emmanuel III Cardinal Delly. “They [the Christians] are especially targeted. I realized this and am going to try, at my small scale, and remedy it,” Kouchner said.

A month later, Germany announced plans to press other European Union countries to consider giving preferential treatment to Iraqi Christian refugees.

I asked Klink what he thought about such programs. “You have to treat Iraqi Christians as a persecuted minority under the overall umbrella of minorities,” he replied. “There should be very clear protection of Iraqi minorities. The idea of a Christian quota would backfire.”

Klink added that our previous pope foresaw the effect the Iraq invasion would have on its Christian communities: “John Paul II predicted that Iraqi Christians would be targeted for reprisals for the U.S. invasion. It made him concerned for the future of the Christian presence, not just in Iraq but the entire Middle East.”

Klink is deeply familiar with Vatican foreign policy. He served 16 years as a Vatican diplomat, an advisor and negotiator for the Permanent Observer Mission of the Holy See to the United Nations. “What John Paul II thought would happen to Iraqi Christians has happened,” he said.

The challenge of dealing with the refugees is that “these people can’t go home; they will be targeted.” As a result, Iraq and the United States have to collaborate to maintain their safety.

This was the topic of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s surprising visit with Pope Benedict XVI on July 26. The Holy Father condemned the violence against Christians in Iraq, and Maliki asked Benedict XVI to “encourage Christians who left the country to go back and be part of the social structure of Iraq again.”

The question remains: Is it safe for Iraqi Christians to return to their homeland? Although both the U.S. and Iraq have made the issue more visible in the past few months, there’s still little accountability for those who commit violence against Christians.

“This is the key,” says Klink. “There has to be accountability — based upon basic human rights — for anyone who is targeted, or as Christians they will face further retribution.”

Just in the past few days, some 240 Iraqis returned home from Egypt on a plane sent by the Iraqi government. But according to several international refugee organizations, it’s doubtful that they can guarantee their safety.

Whether Iraq will establish an autonomous area administered by Christians, or direct its police and courts to make Christian safety a priority, remains to be seen. What is clear is that Iraqi refugees — especially the 500,000 Christians — are not going home anytime soon.

Deal W. Hudson is the director of and the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster, March 2008).