They have been in Iraq for 2,000 years. At the turn of the 20th century they made up 20 percent of the population. In 2000 their numbers had sunk to two percent. For the past three years they have been leaving in droves because of violent persecution from Muslims. They are Iraqi Christians, and it is estimated that 200-300,000 Christians have fled from Iraq since the war began. According to Radio Free Europe:
When Saddam Hussein was still in power, the country’s estimated 1.2 million Christians lived peacefully side by side with Sunnis and Shi’ites, but after Hussein was arrested, they became a target of violence. In some quarters, they are associated with the majority Christian armies of the United States and Britain, who many Muslims believe are waging a modern-day crusade against Islam.
Priests and pastors have been beheaded, and Christian churches have been bombed and set on fire. In What Iraq Christians Need Christianity Today told the story of Ayid Tariq, a 14 year old, was beheaded when radical Muslim insurgents burst into his workplace and saw his Christian affiliation on his identity card. In September 2006 13 Christian women were kidnapped and killed because they were not wearing the hijab, the traditional Muslim headscarf. Services in 60 percent of churches in Iraq have been suspended for the safety of church members.
One of the places both Christians and Sunni Muslims are fleeing to is Northern Iraq. According to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) Christians, Sunnis, and other minorities are fleeing to Kurdistan, the autonomous Kurdish region, because it is a safe haven for them to live. In fact Kurdistan has been overwhelmed by all the refugees: in the last two weeks 9,000 refugees have arrived from war-torn Baghdad. The Chaldean Christian college and seminary in Baghdad first closed classes, then moved to the capital of Kurdistan, Arbil, because of threats and violence. Bishop Rabban al-Qas of Arbil reports that this violence is against both Christians and Muslims. Any minority is a target.
One of the resolutions to this situation being pushed by Iraqi Christians is to form an autonomous Christian region in Ninawah Plane, an area northwest of Mosul, which has not been developed. This would be a sanctuary for Christians and other minorities. They could go to Ninaway Plane instead of leaving the country. This would also help Kurdistan with the influx of refugees they have from their own country. Both Christianity Today and the AINA note that this provision is in the Iraqi Constitution: independent governates can be created like Kurdistan. Supporters of this option say they do not want to be an independent country of their own: they want to take part in the democratic process and be a part of Iraq. But they cannot do this while they are fleeing for their lives.
This plan has been presented to the Bush administration through meetings with the National Security Council, the State Department, and the Vice President’s office. The response has “been polite and at times warm, but not enthusiastic” (Radio Free Europe). Another indication that the Bush administration is only interested in Christianity when they can use it to further they own agenda.
Christianity Today has listed four things the Bush administration and the Iraqi leaders need to do:
- Stop discrimination in aid grants by naming a special aid coordinator in Iraq to insure that Christians and other minorities receive a fair share of international assistance.
- Implement the creation of a homeland for Christians in Iraq’s Nineveh Plains to be governed jointly by Christians and other minority groups. (This is provided for under article 125 of Iraq’s new constitution.)
- Provide more comprehensive care for the estimated 3 million Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. The United States should follow through with its commitment to resettle more refugees from Iraq. In 2006, only 202 were resettled, while a total of 20,000 had been authorized.
- Remove religious affiliation from identification cards. There could hardly be an easier way to protect the lives of Christian civilians, such as Ayad Tariq, than issuing new id cards minus religious labels.
Christian Freedom International has more specific goals the administration needs to focus on:
- First, Washington must insist that successfully protecting religious minorities is one of its benchmarks it will use in assessing the effectiveness of the new Iraqi governmentâ€”and Americaâ€™s willingness to continue offering support. â€œThe Bush administration must insist that it did not invade Iraq simply to replace one form of repression with another,â€ says Jacobson.
- Second, American forces in Iraq should respond to requests for assistance from local Christians. In an attempt to appease Islamists, the U.S. has held Iraqi Christians at arms length, even though they are being targeted because jihadists identify them with Washington.
- Third, the U.S. should accept Christians seeking to flee oppression. So far Washington has kept Americaâ€™s doors largely closed, in an attempt to not admit that persecution exists in Iraq. But politics cannot hide reality.
Washington bears a heavy burden, having unintentionally loosed the furies of sectarian war on Iraqâ€™s Christian community. Argues Jacobson: â€œAt minimum, the Bush administration should push for additional protection for religious minorities and accept those Iraqis forced to flee because of religious persecution.â€
CFI has distributed humanitarian assistance to Christians in Iraq and is currently seeking donations for another shipment of much needed aid.
What can we as Christians do for our Iraqi brother and sisters? First pray. One thing I have noticed when I’ve read of persecuted Christians (normally at Voice of the Martyrs), they have asked us to pray. They want prayer for perseverance and courage to stay true to Christ. They also want prayer that their obedience would show others Christ’s love and soften their hearts. You can also write the President, your senators, and your representative encouraging them to see through their goal of democracy in Iraq for everyone: not just the Shiite Muslim majority. You can donate to Christian Freedom International, so they can get much needed provisions to Christian refugees (click the link and it will take you to CRI’s Iraqi page), or if your denomination is doing something for Iraqi Christians, support them.
Finally, if you are a Christian living in the United States do not demean or belittle your persecuted brothers and sisters by claiming you are persecuted for whatever little thing the Religious Right is harping on now (So what if your kid has to pray silently in school instead of out loud. Didn’t Jesus say something about going into your closet and praying privately and not being a show off?). No Christian in the United States is persecuted, period. We are spoiled children who get mad when we don’t get our way.
Christians, Muslims Flee Baghdad for North Iraq at the Assyrian International News Agency.
Save Iraq’s Persecuted Christians at Christian Freedom International.
And a hat tip to my friend Eric for his post on persecuted Christians in Sri Lanka.