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Iraq’s Christian Exodus

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2011 at 03:34 PM CT


Targeted by all sides, Christians must choose to leave, or stay and face death.

The novelist Zora Neale Hurston described one of her characters as a rut in the road, with “plenty of life below the surface but it was beaten down by the wheels.” Since the fall of Saddam, the Christians of Iraq have been beaten down by every wheel in motion: violence, extortion, and murder. In desperation, Christian religious leaders are now openly criticizing the Iraqi government for failing to protect their flocks. Chaldean archbishop Louis Sako recently lamented in the AsiaNews, “In Iraq Christians are dying, the Church is disappearing under continued persecution, threats and violence [are] carried out by extremists who are leaving us no choice: conversion or exile.”

Twenty years ago the Iraqi Christian population was estimated to be 1.4 million. The Department of State reported there were almost 1 million in early 2003. U.N. sources claim the figure to be 700,000. Two years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it was estimated that 40 percent of the refugees fleeing Iraq were Christian, deliberately targeted in Iraq. There were 20,000 Christian families living in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad before the liberation of Iraq. Today, there are only 3,000 families. Most are only partially intact, as members of those families were killed, displaced to other areas in Iraq or fled the country. One in four Christian families living in the major Iraqi cities has left. A religious cleansing is taking place as Muslim extremists either demand that Christians convert to Islam, and send daughters and sisters to convert and marry a Muslim man; or, worse, force families to leave or be killed.

When looking at the critical mass necessary for the indigenous Christian population to survive in Iraq, there is little reason for optimism. At least 25 percent of the Christian population has fled according to conservative estimates, with some arguing a figure closer to one-half. These figures do not reflect an even larger number of internally displaced.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq reported that attacks on individuals and Christian institutions began to seriously escalate in 2006. Since then, Iraq has seen attack after attack on Christian churches and their leaders. A Catholic and a Syrian Orthodox church in Kirkuk, as well as an Anglican church and the Apostolic Nuncio’s residence in Baghdad, were bombed in January 2006, killing three people. In September, two other churches were attacked, in Kirkuk and Baghdad, killing two persons, one a child. Several Christian clergymen were kidnapped or assassinated. Fr. Boulos Iskandar Behnam was kidnapped and murdered. His head had been sliced from his body and placed upon his lifeless chest. In November, Isoh Majeed Hedaya, the president of the Syriac Independent Unified Movement and an advocate for the formation of an Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac administrative area in the Nineveh Plains, was murdered on his front doorstep. And in December, a high ranking member of the Presbyterian Church in Mosul was murdered. In May, St. George’s Church Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood was bombed for a second time. A Catholic priest and three deacons were murdered outside of their church after saying Mass in Mosul.

Bombs and blood are not enough for the Islamists. Al Qaeda has begun to demand the jizya (protection money demanded of non-Muslims) from Christian families. Those who refuse to pay must leave or be killed. Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army issued a letter to Christians in Baghdad ordering Christian women to veil themselves. The letter warns that those who do not face grave consequences. In an ominous closing note the letter promises enforcement through special committees. Iraqi Christians face terror from both Sunni and Shiite groups.

The story of one such family provides insight on the dramatic effect that the campaign of violence is having on Christians in Iraq. On September 24t, 2006, terrorists detonated a small explosive outside the Church of St. Mary in Baghdad. The explosion drew out parishioners from the church when an even larger bomb detonated, causing massive casualties. Sargon Hanna was one of five persons who directed parishioners back into the Church, knowing the first explosion to be a trap, saving lives. When the second, more deadly bomb exploded, it cost Sargon his leg. A month later, his son Ashur, a security guard for the church, was kidnapped. The kidnappers informed Sargon that he had three options: convert to Islam and report on other Christians, pay a ransom of $200,000, or drive a car-bomb for them, acting as a suicide bomber.

Over a period of ten days his son was tortured with electric shocks and boiling water. When their demands were not met, the terrorists decided to execute Ashur. He was shot in the spine, the bullet exiting through his stomach. Believing him to be dead, his executors threw his body into the street. He survived, just barely. He was taken to a hospital in Baghdad where his condition deteriorated. After thwarting an attempt by a man in a police uniform to shoot Ashur as he lay, paralyzed, in his hospital bed, the Hanna family was convinced they had to flee. Like so many, they now are refugees in Damascus, Syria.

U.S. policies have failed the Iraqi Christians on several fronts. The State Department maintains that it does not designate reconstruction funds on an ethnic or religious basis. USAID and the U.S. Embassy Projects Contracting Office (PCO) have funded projects totaling roughly $2.6 billion in Ninawa Governorate. The Nineveh Plain, with a sizable Assyrian Christian population, is located within this governorate, but only $33 million, or 1.27 percent, was reported to have reached predominantly Assyrian areas, an amount far below their estimated percentage of the population.

Last month Rep. Diane Watson (D., Calif.) questioned the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, at a hearing, “Is there any thought about our policies that are pushing Christians and other minorities out of Iraq where they have lived for centuries?” Bowen responded that she was asking a question concerning State Department policy that he could not answer. Watson concluded her questioning by warning, “I want to be sure that we don’t reinforce discrimination, and only focus on those three major tribes, Sunni, Shia and Kurds.” Watson made her concern clear when she stated her belief that U.S. reconstruction policy is resulting in “de-Christianizing this area in Iraq.”

Congress, unlike other government agencies, is beginning to focus in a meaningful way on the plight of Christians and other minorities in Iraq. In a positive step, the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations passed a budget amendment on June 12 that directs $10 million for internally displaced religious minorities in the Nineveh Plain. The amendment, put forward through the leadership of Rep. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), represents the first formal allocation of funding and acknowledgment of the crisis facing Iraq’s indigenous Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac Christian population.

In October 2003 the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a formally recognized ally of the United States, asked that federalism in Iraq allow for the Nineveh Plain to become an administrative area where they and other vulnerable minorities could share in a new Iraq. Since then, whole populations, activists, and an array of politicians have adopted this vision. That vision must soon become a reality in order to save a people facing destruction.

As Sargon Hanna watches his son slowly die from the wounds inflicted by terrorists in Iraq, he maintains hope in the American vision for Iraq. “They [the U.S.] must find some solution for our people. Yesterday, it was someone, today it was me and tomorrow it will be someone else. This has gone on for too long.” Like the hundreds of thousands of Christian refugees and those internally displaced, Sargon reflects the optimism that their sacrifice will not be in vain and that there will be a place for them in Iraq.

— Rev. Keith Roderick is Washington representative for Christian Solidarity International and secretary general of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights.


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