Pray, cry, leave: Dwindling numbers of Christians in Iraq gather to pray (top) before the bombing of Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad forced them into exile
NEW HAVEN: The voice at the other end of the phone line from Beirut suddenly became nervous. “No, no, no, please!” the panicking nun said. “You cannot mention my real name, you understand, what we are doing is illegal.”
This is why I call her Sister Mary. Sister Mary does not launder money nor trade drugs. Instead, she leads an association that assists clandestine Christian Iraqi refugees whose plight leads them to travel to Lebanon by foot.
She anticipates more refugees after the church massacre on Sunday 31st, a dark day for Iraq’s Christian community, though the incident received little attention from the international press and policymakers. A terrorist group took the Lady of Deliverance church in Bagdad by siege, holding the congregation hostage and killing 46 Chaldean worshipers, including two priests celebrating mass, and wounding some 67. This was not the first act of violence against Iraq’s dwindling Christian community, but it was by far the most horrific. And it likely won’t be the last act of violence targeting Christians of the Levant.
The Levant who spread Christianity to the West struggles to safeguard its minorities. After surviving millennia of religious and cultural persecutions in its own cradle, Christianity in the Levant, the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, could face demise at the hands of this Christian West. In fact, political alliances sought by Western states and, most importantly, the United States leverage existential threats against the remaining Christian minorities in the Middle East, and rescue is not high on the agenda.
After surviving millennia of persecutions in its own cradle, Christianity in the Levant could face
Realizing the magnitude of the plight for its community, the Iraqi Chaldean Archdiocese dispatched a representative to Lebanon to oversee the needs of the Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac refugees there. Father Rony Hanna noted that the number of refugees in Lebanon amount to 1000 families, about 6000 people in all. There are nearly 20,000 in Syria, and some 5000 in Jordan. More than half of Iraq’s Christians left that nation, he added, their number shrinking from 1,100,000 to 450,000.
The 2000-year old Christian community has dwindled to some 0.5 percent since the US grand strategy to promote democracy in the Middle East made its debut in Iraq. Oddly enough, Father Hanna pointed out that under Saddam Hussein, rights of minority Christians were protected. “Security forces were sent to our religious celebration to provide us with protection and they did,” he noted. “This is what we most miss now, being protected.”
The most likely scenario for Christians eludes scores of strategists: Sacrificing Iraq’s Christian minority as collateral damage reinforces an intolerant community where extremists find fertile ground to expand. Reducing the Christian minority also strips identity from one of the oldest multi-religious civilizations in the world. So far the issue is met with astounding silence.
Oddly enough, one priest pointed out that under Saddam Hussein, rights of Iraq’s minority Christians were protected.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, violence against Christians soared, with reports of abduction, torture, bombings, killings and forced conversions to Islam. In 2006, an Orthodox Christian priest was beheaded and mutilated despite a ransom payment. In 2008, the Archbishop of Mosul died after being abducted. In January 2008, bombs exploded outside nine churches. Fleeing the violence is an imperative.
“Refugees are smuggled through the Iraqi-Syrian border, then through the Syrian-Lebanese border,” Sister Mary explains, describing a 16-hour walk. “When we saw these thousands of refugees flocking into Lebanon four years ago, we thought we needed to do something.”
The refugees arrive to Lebanon bereft. “The little money or valuable items they might have been able to carry … ends up in the hands of Kurdish [and other agents] that smuggle them into various borders of neighboring countries,” she explained.
Lebanon is not the end of their journey. The clandestine families usually wait one year before receiving emigration visas from Europe, the US, Canada or Australia. During their temporary stay in Lebanon, charities like Sister Mary’s association and Caritas – a worldwide Catholic charity – try to provide housing, small jobs and schooling for the children. Information about the numbers of visas given to Iraqi refugees is largely decentralized and thus not highly credible. Father Hanna could only confirm that the US Embassy is the largest provider of visas.
After the invasion of Iraq, violence against Christians soared, with reports of abduction, torture, killings and forced conversions to Islam.
It goes without saying that the suffering of Iraqi civilians is not restricted to the Christian community. Both Christian and Muslim communities are affected, though in diverse ways. But the massive exodus of Christians does have repercussions on the social fabric of Iraq and the Middle East as a whole.
In Egypt, the Coptic Church that has inhabited the region since the 1st century AD has seen its membership shrink considerably over the years. Not only does it suffer from groups linked with Al Qaeda, but also from Hosni Mubarak’s regime, backed by the US. The regime has taken no measures to end oppression of the Coptic minority – with worshippers killed outside churches, churches looted and burned, and forced expulsions this year alone. The regime not only fails to prevent violent attacks against Coptic churches, but also blames the attacks on the Copts themselves.
In a bid to force the Mubarak government into action, Coptic associations based in the US urge sanctions on the regime. These demands are met with silence because the increasingly unpopular and autocratic regime of Egypt is a main US ally in the region.
The Christians of Lebanon – by far the most powerful minority in the region – have been stranded twice in recent history. Neighboring Israel in the South, the Christian community alone confronts the threat posed by hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees fleeing their lands, which eventually ignited the 1975 civil war. Similarly in 1990, the US gave Lebanon’s eastern neighbor, Syria, the go-ahead to invade the Christian hinterland of Mount Lebanon in exchange for support in Desert Storm, the 1991 US invasion of Iraq.
The US grand strategy for Iraq has failed to secure a peaceful Iraq, let alone provide safety for its Christian minority.
The US grand strategy for Iraq has failed to secure a peaceful Iraq, let alone provide safety for its Christian minority. The so-called successes yielded are yet to be discerned. The world may indeed “be a better place” without Saddam, but certainly not for all people. Ending his dictatorship has allowed new strands of extremism, both Sunni and Shiite, to thrive. Father Hanna noted, “We wonder, why do they turn a blind eye to what is happening to us?”
The US paid the Iraqi community lip service by condemning the latest church carnage, yet offers no alternative to the chaos that prevails. And it’s no secret that long-term consequences of the Iraq war are dire: The search for non-existent weapons for mass destruction has bred “people of mass destruction.” Iraq is a country of porous land borders, exporting into the Mediterranean, then directly on to the West, two sorts of people: broken, scarred refugees, and indoctrinated and hideous terrorists. Some 2000 years after its emergence a religion that spread to the rest of the world faces the prospect of being erased from the lands where it was born.