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.