Christians Leaving Iraq

The attacks on Iraq's churches will accelerate the exodus of the country's Christian minority.

The religious leaders of Iraq's small Christian community have long-downplayed the fact that many Iraqi-Christians are leaving Iraq. But Sunday's coordinated attacks in Baghdad and Mosul on five churches -- which, unlike mosques, have not previously been targeted -- will no doubt strengthen the resolve of Iraqi-Christians thinking of leaving Iraq and convince others of the necessity of doing so.

Iraq's Christians -- Chaldean Catholics; Assyrians; Roman and Syriac Catholics; Greek, Syriac and Armenian Orthodox; Angicans and others -- make up 3 percent of the population, and are concentrated in the cities. Of course, the lack of security has been a problem for all Iraqis, whatever their religion, but the country's Christians feel particularly vulnerable to attack. For one, many within the insurgency view the American-led coalition as a Christian crusade and Iraq's Christian community as its supporters and collaborators. Shops selling alcohol, many of them owned by Christians, have been attacked, their merchandise destroyed, and their owners beaten and even murdered. As the BBC reported last month, the Iraqi police blamed the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army for the attacks: "His men are no longer fighting American and interim Iraqi government troops, and some suspect they are now channelling their energies into a moral battle instead."

Iraq's national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie held Egyptian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi responsible for Sunday's attacks on the churches, which occurred during mass, killing 11 people and injuring 47: "Zarqawi and his extremists are basically trying to drive a wedge between Muslims and Christians in Iraq. It's clear they want to drive Christians out of the country." But as the Christian Science Monitor reported last month:

"Not all Christians are killed by Islamic militants. Issaq [director of international relations for the Assyrian Democratic Movement] has compiled a list of 102 Christians killed since April 9, 2003. Some were killed for selling alcohol; others for working with Americans as translators or laundresses. (About 10 percent were killed by coalition troops, casualties of postwar violence.) Many were kidnapped and killed for money, a fate that befalls Muslims, too.

But sometimes it's hard to separate kidnappings from religious murders. Among Iraqis, there's a widespread belief that Christians are wealthy. This stereotype, too, can kill."

Iraq's Christians had their churches destroyed and themselves forcibly relocated under Saddam Hussein, but they didn't experience the sort of persecution that the majority Shia, not to say the Kurds, have been subjected to. Considered less politically threatening by the Baath Party than Islamic minorities and the Shia majority, Christians were granted a greater degree of religious freedom in return for their political obedience. Relations between Muslims and Christians have generally been placid.

Today, Iraqi Christians are upset about what they say is inadequate representation in the current government (a claim echoed by every group) and they fear the creation of an Islamist state. Some Christian leaders say that a separate Christian province is necessary to protect the country's minority. Aside from the obvious failure of coalition troops to provide security, the United States is blamed by some Christians for promoting Islamic rule in Iraq, where Christians date their presence to the first century. As one Assyrian-Iraqi told UPI in early June:

"The American-funded TV station, Al Iraqia, broadcasts Muslim programs four times every day and for two hours each Friday but nothing for the other religions. The recent inauguration of the new government was opened by a Muslim mullah reciting a long passage and a prayer from the Koran, but none of our priests were invited. Why do they do this? Why do the Americans promote Muslims? They need to promote equality and democracy and freedom, not Muslim dictatorship."

Among the Iraqi-Christians who have emigrated, some have settled in neighboring countries like Syria, while others have received asylum in Australia, North America, and Europe. Australia's Iraqi-born population, which includes the various Christian dominations as well as Kurds and Jews, has grown dramatically since Gulf War. In 1991, there were 5,186 Iraqi-born persons in Australia, but in 2001, the last year for which census figures are available there were 24,819. Among Iraqi-Armenians, who make up one of the smaller Christian communities, some have emigrated to the Republic of Armenia.

The number of Christians seeking to emigrate is unknown, but the estimated 800,000 that live in Iraq today represent a marked decline from the 1987 census that registered 1.4 million Iraqi-Christians. Shmael Benjamin a member of the political bureau of the Assyrian Democratic Movement told Reuters: "We're the Red Indians of Iraq. We were the majority, today we're the minority, our percentage is reducing day by day in this country." Perhaps, as Slate puts it, "with Iraq's Shiites and Kurds having earlier been targeted by bombings, it was probably only a matter of time before the country's Christians would get their turn." But given the previous attacks on Christians, the continuing lack of security for everyone, and fears of a future Islamist state, Iraqi's Christians are more likely to draw the conclusion that it is time to pack their bags.