Iraqi Christians are paying the price of the Bush administration’s desire to remove Saddam Hussein.  The Iranian Revolution and the rising influence of militant Islam have already forced the secular Iraqi dictatorship to make concessions to proponents of Iraq’s Islamicization, but the threat of a U.S. attack, together with a widespread feeling in the Arab and Muslim world that Washington’s “War on Terror” is, in fact, a war on Islam, have prompted Saddam to play the Islamic card in an attempt to shore up support for his regime at home and in the Muslim world.  To that end, the Iraqi regime has recently put the property of Christian churches under the management of its Ministry for Islamic Property; expanded an age-old rule that forces the conversion of Christians married to Muslims to include children from previous Christian marriages, regardless of age or desire; enacted rules making it more difficult to offer Christian religion classes—currently taught in “totalitarian” Iraq in public schools with Christian majorities; and decreed that the non-Arab, non-Muslim parents of newborns must use Arabic and Islamic names for their children.

U.N. economic sanctions have also aided the Islamic revival in Iraq: The hardships of daily life in the embattled country have naturally turned the Iraqis to their traditional religion.  As reported in the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Iraq now ranks 126th out of 174 countries surveyed on the U.N. Human Development Index, just one place above Lesotho.  In 1991, Iraq was ranked 91st.  And the country’s traditionally Muslim peoples are flocking to mosques.  One U.N. official noted that, “Before, Iraq was a secular country; this has changed.”  For example, a 30-year-old woman, the daughter of a U.S.-educated academic, has taken to wearing the veil, shocking her family.  “I have no work even though I have a diploma,” she says, “no boyfriend because young men my age are out of work and cannot think of marriage or the future . . . The Quran is my refuge.”  Allahu Akbar (“Allah is Great”) now adorns the Iraqi national flag.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s Christians fear that they will be the first victims of a war that might dismember the country, unleashing ethnic and religious conflicts that Baghdad had previously suppressed.  Tariq, a Christian merchant in Baghdad, told the French weekly Marianne that “If the United States goes to war against our country . . . [t]he Wahhabis and other fundamentalists will take advantage of the confusion to throw us out of our homes, destroy us as a community, and declare Iraq an Islamic nation!”  If recent history is any indication, Tariq has cause for concern: The Shiite uprising in southern Iraq during the Gulf War—encouraged and then abandoned by Washington—targeted Christians.  Many Christians had supported Saddam’s regime, in spite of creeping Islamicization, as their best hope of survival in the Islamic Middle East.

Life has never been easy for Iraqi Christians, a community of around 800,000 mostly Catholic and Orthodox believers, but the secular Ba’ath regime has largely suppressed outbreaks of anti-Christian violence, and Christians, especially Assyrian Catholics (the predominant Christian group, called Chaldeans in Iraq), have served in prominent state posts under Saddam.  Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, is a Christian.

The Chaldeans are an ancient people, many of whom speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus, in addition to Arabic.  Converted to Christianity by St. Thomas the Apostle, the Chaldeans later espoused Nestorian doctrines until reunified with Rome in the 16th century.  Today, they belong to the Chaldean Rite of the Roman Catholic Church.  Classical Aramaic is used in the Chaldean liturgy.

The largest group of Chaldeans is concentrated in Mosul, in northern Iraq, formerly a major Mesopotamian trading hub on the route from India to the Mediterranean, called Nineveh in the Bible.  Mosul lies in the United Nation’s northern “Safe Haven,” which is dominated by the Muslim Kurds.  According to Iraqi Christian sources, Kurdish paramilitary forces have conducted a terror campaign against Christians living in the Safe Haven, which has included assassinations of Christian leaders and expropriations of land held by Christians.  This campaign has largely been ignored by Western media, the United Nations, Washington, and the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress, which portrays itself as the defender of democratic values and of Iraq’s minorities.

The August 15, 2002, murder of a nun in Baghdad and the desecration of the convent in which she lived served as a warning to the Christian community of Iraq, which justifiably has little faith that the administration of a “Christian” American President will come to its aid or even has any concern for its fate.  On Christmas Eve of last year, an Iraqi Christian mother and her nine-year-old daughter worshiped at Mosul’s Clock and Latin Church, built in 1872 by French Dominicans.  She told a Washington Post correspondent, “We are praying to God to protect us and our children.”  A priest echoed her fears: “We’re afraid the Kurds will be here and the Muslims will be here.  We don’t know what the situation will be.”  In Mosul, Christians have already begun packing away their most precious antiquities to protect them from the pogroms of the Muslims and the bombing of the Americans.