Christians under pressure in Iraq

  • October 26, 2007
While U.S. government officials insist that security in Iraq has improved since the so-called “surge” in troop strength began earlier this year, the situation of Iraqi non-combatants remains dire. Hundreds of thousands have been killed or injured in sectarian violence and millions have been forced from their homes. Kidnapping and other acts of criminal banditry occur every day. A recent report by the United Nations states that civilians continue to be targeted by armed groups through abductions, suicide bombings and extra-judicial executions.
In the midst of this widespread suffering, the plight of  Iraq’s Christian minority is especially serious. Lela Gilbert, an adjunct fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute’s Centre for Religious Freedom, writes that “for Christians who remain in Iraq, tragedies abound.” Gilbert cites a Christian who refused to convert to Islam and was murdered by Shiite militants. Two weeks before, insurgents shot dead a Catholic priest and three of his deacons. A Baghdad emir issued a convert-or-die decree against six Christian families, who immediately fled their homes. A Syrian Orthodox priest who refused to repudiate the Regensburg comments about Islam by Pope Benedict XVI was beheaded in a town near  Mosul. The UN reports that armed groups with ties to extremist Islamic factions have claimed control over Christian neighbourhoods in Baghdad, threatening and abducting, looting and killing residents at will. According to Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in  Baghdad, Christians in  Baghdad continue to be told to convert to Islam or be killed. Many of those unable to leave the country are living in churches without adequate food or water.

Many Christians have opted not to stay in Iraq, because of the ongoing violence and because, in the eyes of Islamic extremists, they are viewed as accomplices of the Western “crusaders” who invaded the country in 2003. Of the 2.2-million people who have become refugees abroad, mostly in Syria, an estimated 30 per cent are believed to be Christian. A third of Iraq’s Christian people, many of them Catholic — around five per cent of the total population — have fled the country, according to the Washington Times.

Meanwhile, the Western powers engaged in the Iraq war, who could presumably intervene to stop or slow this persecution, have stood by, unwilling or unable to act. The United States does nothing. In July, a British MP raised the issue of these attacks on Christians in the House of Commons. An official with the Foreign Office reportedly acknowledged the serious character of the problem and promised to follow up with the Iraqi government. But no action has followed.

As the security of ordinary Iraqis has deteriorated in southern and central regions, thousands of Christians have fled into the northern, Kurdish-controlled section of the country. But in this relatively peaceful part of their war-torn nation, Christians are threatened by new menaces. Sixty-thousand Turkish troops are massed at the Iraqi border, and, in October, the Turkish parliament gave official permission for cross-border strikes against Kurdish militants operating from safe havens in Iraq. Should the Turkish military exercise its attack option and invade northern Iraq, Iraqi Christians in the border region, and many other Iraqis, would inevitably be caught in the deadly conflict.

Even if an invasion fails to materialize, the lives of Christians and others in the northern border region of  Iraq are under constant threat. Michael Howard, a correspondent in northern Iraq for The Guardian newspaper, recently reported on a Turkish shelling of suspected Kurdish insurgent strongholds. Instead of hitting rebel bases in the mountains, the shells landed near the home of a Christian refugee, one of thousands living in the border zone. “Our house was shaking. I told my family it was thunder,” the Iraqi told Howard. “But I have lived in Baghdad for 40 years, so I know the sound of bombs. There were 22 of them. We escaped the Islamic terrorists, and now we are terrorized by the Turks. Where else can we run?”

In October, Pope Benedict XVI named Patriarch Emmanuel-Karim Delly of  Baghdad a cardinal. We can hope that Patriarch Delly’s new high standing in the Catholic Church will open doors for him with governmental and other officials with the power to ease the suffering of all Iraqis. Meanwhile, we should pray for the people of this beleaguered land, especially for our Christian brothers and sisters there.

(Mays is a Toronto author and journalist.)