Iraqi Christians Seek Return, Sense Extinction

by , November 17, 2009

How easy it is to declare Iraq "turned around" while an ancient people face the swirling desert sands of their own extinction.

While it might sound a bit hyperbolic, there is no denying that the Christian minority in Iraq is slowly bleeding out, even as U.S. lawmakers justifying their support for the invasion of Iraq – such as Senators John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham – insist the United States military made that country a better place to live.

Millions of Iraqis, including the Christians who have fled the country since the 2003 invasion or who have lost family members in targeted killings or kidnappings, probably disagree. While their brethren in exile encounter unemployment, isolation, and even homelessness because of the worldwide economic crisis, the Christians who remain in Iraq are subject to ongoing intimidation and violence from Muslim fundamentalist militias and even the Kurds who once took them in under wartime duress.

"We are considered the weakest of the weak. That is why we are targeted, because we don’t have the means to fight back and our Christian teaching does not allow us to fight back," insists Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Michigan-based Chaldean Federation of America, which advocates for the welfare of all Christian Iraqis. Though numbers vary a bit, Kassab says there are approximately 400,000 Christian Iraqis left in the country, down from a pre-war population of about 1.4 million (other estimates place the remaining number of Christians at between 500,000 and 600,000, down from 1.2 million).

Nevertheless, says Kassab, "we are dealing with the issue of survival here," and things are getting worse. Many Christians – who as of 2003 accounted for about 3 percent of Iraq’s population – fled to the northern Kurdish areas after being persecuted by militias in Baghdad and other urban centers after the invasion. Now, according to news reports and a recent alert by Human Rights Watch (HRW), they are struggling in the crossfire – along with other ethnic minorities like the Yazidi, Shabak, Turkmen, and Kakai communities – between the dominant Kurds and usurped Arabs, particularly in Nineveh province.

From the HRW report:

"Both Kurdish and Arab authorities lay claim to Nineveh’s disputed territories, and since 2003, the Kurdistan Regional Government has been in a position to reshape the reality on the ground through its extensive security and political presence. To consolidate its grip, it has offered minorities financial and other inducements to win their support while simultaneously using repressive measures to keep them in line. Kurdish forces have engaged in arbitrary arrests and detentions, intimidation, and in some cases low-level violence, against minorities who have challenged regional government control of the disputed territories. …

"Extremist elements in the Sunni Arab insurgency, for their part, view minority communities as ‘crusaders’ and ‘infidels.’ Some have carried out devastating attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians. Nineveh’s provincial capital, Mosul, has become a hotbed of the insurgency in part because the regional government’s hegemony in the immediate area has alienated Sunni Arabs long accustomed to positions of privilege and power under previous governments."

The recent uptick in violence against these Christians and other minorities follows years of persecution. Baghdad is pretty much drained of any Christians, according to reports, and only 300 Christian families total are still living in the southern part of the country, declared Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, in a recent interview with Aid to the Church in Need.

"I feel more pessimistic now than ever before," he said in September. "We do not have the same hope that we had before. In fact I am not seeing any signs of hope for the future. Our whole future hangs in the balance."

What Happened? One Man’s Account

Kassab charts the apparent demise of his people, veering wildly from the predominant view in the U.S. that things are finally on the right path in Iraq.

"After the invasion of 2003, people cheered up – mainly the members of the religious and ethnic minorities of Iraq, because they thought democracy was coming," he says. "I was in Iraq in 2004, and everyone was cheery and happy. The people in U.S. uniform were happy too. It wasn’t long after that we saw a dramatic change to things nobody had expected."

"Many Iraqis became more sectarian than secular. This did not help the minority people at all. Then there was a significant brain drain in Iraq. The intellectuals, the professors, the educated people became targeted by the fundamentalists and the militias," according to Kassab. "[Christians] were assassinated and put out of work, and they fled Iraq."

Before the war, Christians were a learned, professional class that enjoyed civilian jobs and some deference from former dictator Saddam Hussein. But like Kassab himself, many fled during the 1980s to avoid conscription into Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, and the dictator’s treatment of Christians became increasingly erratic and brutal as he became more paranoid and unstable through the 1990s. "He prevented newborn babies to be given Biblical names, and [he] nationalized our institutions," says Kassab.

But nothing could prepare his people for what was to come after Saddam fell. Out-of-work Ba’ath soldiers became armed brigands. Sunnis and Shi’ites roamed the streets, seeking scapegoats. Churches were targeted. Christians who had lived in relative harmony with their Muslim neighbors before were now branded traitors and accused of colluding with the Americans, of being "infidels" and "crusaders."

"The whole situation in Iraq led very frail communities in Iraq, like the Christians, to be hurt first and foremost. They don’t have tribal people to help them, they are small. People were kidnapped and killed right in front of their neighbors and families. We’ve had people crucified. Some women have had acid tossed in their faces."

And it all happened with seemingly little rhyme or reason, other than to punish arbitrarily – whether it be the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, who was found in a shallow grave after he was kidnapped in March 2008, or the 5-year-old boy who was kidnapped and killed, his small body found partially eaten by wild dogs, in a small village outside Mosul in May of this year.

The Shia-dominated government in Iraq, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has made many promises to stop the violence, but so far, has not come through, says Kassab. Meanwhile, with only two Christian members of parliament, it is extremely difficult to exert political pressure internally. In November, one of the parliamentarians, Yonadam Kanna, called for a formal inquiry into the recent killings.

"We definitely get sweet words [from the government], no doubt about it, and a lot of sympathy," says Kassab, "but not all the action."

Refugee Crisis

Many Christians have joined the 2.5 million internally displaced Iraqis and the more than 2 million who have fled the country, mostly to Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, and Turkey.

Thanks to the efforts of groups like the Chaldean Federation, some Christians have been resettled in Europe and the U.S. in increasingly larger numbers. After a political bottleneck in the U.S. (the Bush administration had a hard time acknowledging publicly that anyone would want to leave Iraq after the invasion), upward of 35,000 Iraqis of all religious and ethnic backgrounds have been granted asylum in the U.S. since 2007. Reports indicate as many as half are Christian.

But hard economic times all over have led to disastrous outcomes for some of these refugees. In Sweden, Iraqi Christians are actually being kicked out after courts declared the fighting in Iraq over. "Some of the asylum-seekers are now forced into hiding to avoid being sent back to Iraq," according to one investigation by the Swedish press.

In America, this is the worst possible time to be an immigrant. For example, in 2008, 2,415 Iraqis arrived in the greater Detroit area – which as of September had an unemployment rate of 17 percent – an increase of 1,565 percent over 2006, according to a Georgetown University study released in October. However, funding to the state to help refugees actually decreased during that period, according to the report.

"Across the United States, many resettled Iraqi refugees are wondering how, after fleeing persecution at home to seek refuge in a country that barely tolerated them, they have found themselves in ‘the land of opportunity’ with little hope of achieving a secure and decent life. From Washington, D.C., to Detroit to San Diego, recently resettled Iraqi refugees face odds so heavily stacked against them that most end up jobless, some even homeless. …

"The United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is unique in giving new life and opportunity to millions of refugees, accepting many times more than the rest of the world combined. But this report finds that the United States is opening its gates to refugees and simply forgetting about them after they have arrived."

Longtime residents and citizens are now competing more vigorously with recent immigrants for American jobs, heightening tensions and fueling the political demagoguery behind recent debates over immigration, illegal or otherwise. This month, activists in the "tea party" movement attempted to turn the public’s ire on immigrants, too, by joining up with anti-immigration forces for a series of Nov. 14 protests across the country.

The irony is that Iraqi Christians like the three men who attempted to cross the Rio Grande last summer after paying a hustler $20,000 each would not be in such a desperate place were it not for the U.S. invasion of their country. Furthermore, Iraqi Christians have been largely ignored by one of the most powerful political movements in the U.S. – Christian conservatives – at a time when they could use a hand the most. Because it’s not "politically correct" for these Republican foot soldiers to talk about the plight of women, children, and refugees caused by the Bush administration’s war policies, their efforts to address the issue have been minimal.

Though earnest champions like Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have promised to advance their cause on Capitol Hill, Christian Iraqis must compete for crumbs in Washington’s bread line against myriad organizations with more money and better lobbyists.

According to Kassab, Christians don’t want to feed from the trough; they want to return to Iraq. These ancient Christians – Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriaks – descend from the earliest Christian communities in Greco-Roman antiquity. They speak the original language of Christ – Aramaic – and claim Mesopotamia as their home. "This is our ancestral line," says Kassab. These Christians don’t want to resign themselves to the unmerciful sands of time, and certainly not to the backlash of struggling Americans who might resent them.

But first there must be safety and, yes, respect for and official recognition of Iraq’s ethnic and religious minorities, says Kassab. So far, contrary to what McCain, Lieberman, and Graham say about the "success" of U.S. military action in Iraq, this has not happened.

As Kassab puts it, "When the United States came to Iraq, it came with the assumption that democracy should take root, number one, and that all people of Iraq should be protected. This is not happening – not the democracy, not the protection of the people."

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos