Iraq’s Christians may be on their way to extinction, thanks to the Bush administration’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime. Today, Iraq’s mostly Catholic and Orthodox Christians are fleeing the country, with their destination of choice being, ironically, Syria, another target for “regime change” on the neoconservative hit list.
More than two years ago, Chronicles readers were made aware of the threat to Iraq’s Christians posed by the Bush administration’s determination to overturn Saddam’s regime: As the White House geared up for war, this author wrote that the administration seemed “willing to sacrifice” Iraq’s Christians in order to bring down Saddam. There was widespread apprehension among Iraqi Christians at the time. War and the end of the Ba’ath regime in Baghdad might well, many Iraqi Christians warned, unleash the Islamic forces that Saddam had largely held in check. In fact, the secular Ba’ath regime was hated by the Islamists, including Osama bin Laden, in part because of its relative tolerance toward the Christian community. With the political brakes off, the warnings of Islamic attacks on the country’s 800,000 Christians came true, and the attacks appear to be escalating.
In August 2004, five churches in Baghdad and four in Mosul were attacked on the same day. The attacks killed 12 and signaled that the Muslim blows against Christians were becoming systematic. On the first day of the Muslim celebration of Ramadan last October, five churches were attacked. In November, two church bombings killed eight Christians. At the same time, Christians have been targeted for kidnapping; their businesses have been destroyed (Christians own and operate liquor stores, among other enterprises; these, in particular, have been the targets of Islamic attacks); and their women have been forced to wear the Muslim veil. As reported in the Washington Times, many Christian university students, fearing for their lives, have stopped attending classes. Iraq’s Christians celebrated Christmas at home last year, as priests warned believers off from Midnight Mass at their parish churches. As cited by the Washington Times’ Arnold Beichman, the patriarch of Babylon, Emmanuel III, felt “pained” by “the destruction of our people, resources, buildings, and churches. We grieve over the tragic death of many of our children and the injuries and psychological shocks suffered by others.”
Stories of attacks, kidnappings, and murders of Iraqi Christians have become commonplace. As one Iraqi Christian refugee in Syria told the New York Times, he had hoped that the Americans’ promises of “liberation” might come true, but “our suffering has only increased.” “Saddam didn’t allow for people to incite” religious violence, Solaka Enweya told the Times, but, in U.S.-occupied Iraq, “we Christians have suffered so much” that “our only choice is to leave for Syria.” The refugee stream continues, though some Iraqi Christian church leaders have called for their flock to stay and preserve one of Christianity’s oldest communities. Whatever their views of the United States or their relations with the occupation authorities, however, both Sunni and Shiite Muslims have identified all Christians with the West, the United States, and the occupation.
If Iraqi Christians expected any help—or even sympathy—from the historically Christian United States, they have been bitterly disappointed. Anthony Browne of the Spectator recently wrote that, “Two years and many church attacks later, Iraq may still be occupied by Christian foreign powers, but the Islamist plan to ethnically [sic] cleanse Iraq . . . is reaching fruition.” Browne, who describes himself as a “liberal democrat atheist,” stated flatly that “Muslims stick up for their co-religionists,” something that Christians largely fail to do. Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo of the Barnabas Trust, which aids persecuted Christians, told Browne that “The Muslims have an Ummah [the worldwide Muslim community],” whereas Christians no longer have Christendom. There is “no Christian country that says ‘We are Christian and we will help Christians.’”
With Shiite Muslims being the conspicuous winners in the Iraqi elections, perhaps the Bush administration should reconsider just what “regime change” and democracy could mean in Middle Eastern states. Derek Hoffman, writing in Christianity Today, clues us in: “Throughout the Middle East,” wrote Hoffman, “whenever Islamist parties have stood for election they have usually won. And they are becoming more popular.” The likely outcome of overturning regimes in places such as Iraq and Syria seems obvious: “Democracy” in the Middle East probably means the installation of Islamic regimes that will not only persecute Christians but act as staging grounds for the further spread of militant Islam.
Meanwhile, as the Bush White House targets Syria, a haven for Iraq’s dwindling Christian community, it remains remarkably tolerant of Saudi Arabia, a country that the Spectator’s Browne condemned as “the global fountain of religious bigotry,” a state that fiercely persecutes Christians. U.S. ally Pakistan is no better. President Bush’s most fervent supporters, blinkered by a dispensationalist “end-times” theology that eclipses the Gospel’s message of Salvation, don’t seem to care, assuming they have been thoughtful enough to question what is happening to their fellow Christians in the first place. Maybe these are, indeed, the end times—first and foremost for any remaining vestige of the idea of Christendom and, perhaps, for the ancient Christian communities of the Middle East.