The Destruction of Iraq’s Christian Community: Another Legacy of George W. Bush’s Invasion

Republican politicians have worked assiduously to win votes by posing as defenders of religious liberty. They aren’t always faking. However, the GOP’s military interventions in the Middle East have been singularly destructive, doing much to drive Christians and other religious minorities from the region.

Ultimately, President George W. Bush, along with his Republican followers and Christian fans, did more harm to religious minorities in the Middle East than did the Islamic State. Indeed, the latter would not exist but for Bush & Co.’s malign activities.

A new report from the American Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation highlights the harm Washington has wreaked upon Middle East Christians. Religious minorities long have faced pressure in the region. AFRR’s board chairman, Max Wood, noted that "Christianity is under attack across the globe but especially in the Middle East. Less than 100 years ago, Christians made up approximately 20% of the population in the Middle East. Today, that number is barely 4%."

If simply the result of voluntary action, there is little if anything the US government should do. Although Washington has good reason to support religious as well as political liberty, it has no reason to try to preserve religious diversity in any region. Indeed, as life grew more difficult for Mideast Christians, many decided to take advantage of opportunities to secure a better life in the West. The more Lebanese, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians who emigrate to the US, the greater the opportunity for even more Lebanese, Egyptian, and Palestinian Christians to emigrate in the future.

However, in recent years Christians, as well as members of other minority faiths, such as Bahais and Yezidis, have suffered through a tsunami of persecution and violence. Nowhere has the horror been worse than Iraq.

More than a million Christians – estimates varied – called Iraq home a couple decades ago. They were able to live their faith and worship freely. Saddam Hussein was a terrible dictator, but he was a secular tyrant. He brutalized anyone who opposed him but cared not at all about which god they worshipped. Hussein’s close associate, Tariz Aziz, was a high-ranking Baath Party member who served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Aziz also was a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church. His faith may have been merely nominal, but in no Arab state other than Syria, another secular dictatorship, did non-Muslims serve in such positions of political authority.

Then came the blundering, lying, killing Bush administration.

Today, Iraq’s Christian population is down about 80 percent. Noted AFRR: "there are around only 150,000 Christians left in Iraq. Many Christians are seriously affected by intolerance and persecution. This is perpetuated mostly by militant Islamic groups and non-Christian leaders. They also face discrimination from government authorities. According to The World Watch List, (an annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution), Iraq is ranked 14th in the world. Being a Christian costs livelihoods, safety, purity and, very often, lives. Iraq remains plagued by conflict and sectarian violence. As recently as May 2021, Christian villages were evacuated in the Province of Dohuk in northern Iraq. Turkish airstrikes targeted a number of villages and bombs destroyed homes, businesses and churches."

This is an extraordinary achievement by the Bush administration. Of an incredibly negative sort.

The US invasion of Iraq – conducted under false pretenses and with unrealistic expectations – ousted the government, destroyed political institutions, unleashed Islamist extremists, and triggered sectarian conflict. Everyone, Christian, Sunni, Shiite, and other, was at risk. However, minorities, of few numbers and with few defenses, suffered the most. Many were kidnapped and murdered, while even more were driven from their homes. Kurdistan offered sanctuary for some religious minorities as well as Kurds. Many others fled to Syria, where they soon again found themselves in a violent cauldron.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq reincarnated as the Islamic State, to which many Sunnis, victimized by the Shia-friendly government left in charge by America, turned to for protection. ISIS launched another brutal round against Christians and other religious minorities. Yezidi women suffered from a wave of sexual violence and slavery. Eventually the Iraqi government, assisted by both the US and Iran, beat back the Islamic State and eradicated the formal caliphate, though some ISIS adherents remain.

However, even the State Department acknowledges that Iraq remains a dangerous place, though thankfully much less so than during active hostilities. State’s latest report on religious liberty reported: "Minority religious groups, including Christians and Yezidis, said the presence of armed affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar and the Ninewa Plain, as well as continued Turkish airstrikes targeting alleged PKK positions, continued to endanger residents and hinder the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs).  The Yezidi community in Sinjar reported in January and May that the PKK had kidnapped hundreds of Yezidi children to recruit and subject to ideological ‘brainwashing’ in the years since ISIS was defeated in Sinjar in 2015."

Moreover, added State: "According to media and human rights organizations, societal violence perpetrated by sectarian armed groups, mainly pro-Iran Shia militias, continued during the year, although there were no documented cases of violence specifically related to religious affiliation in the IKR.  Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Provinces, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when these observances coincided with Shia Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura.  There were continued reports that members of non-Muslim minority groups felt the Muslim majority pressured them to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan."

Problems are not restricted to Iraq, unfortunately. In Syria President Barack Obama, who opposed the Iraq war, joined Islamist insurgents, including the local al-Qaeda affiliate, in attempting to overthrow the secular Assad regime. Naturally, Republicans, led by pro-war fanboys John McCain and Lindsey Graham, demanded even greater US involvement. Having seen the terrible end of the movie in Iraq, Syrian Christians and Alawites who I met on a trip a few years ago were horrified with Washington’s policy and accused US policymakers of having no idea what they were doing. Although the US did not intend to create violent chaos throughout the region, American money, arms, and advocacy fueled the conflict.

Today Syria remains a frightening place for most everyone, including religious minorities. AFRR said of that nation: "the situation is just as bleak, with over 10 million Christians fleeing intense sectarian violence over the last 20 years. Many have been displaced in their home countries, or have become refugees in neighboring countries, such as Jordan."

The Damascus regime continues to violate human rights and disproportionately rely upon Alawites, though whether the latter reflects religious discrimination or regime loyalty is a matter of some dispute. Worse, violent extremists, some previously backed by Washington, continue to wreak human havoc, and target the religiously vulnerable. The State Department related:

"The United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic (COI) again reported it had reasonable grounds to believe some Turkish-supported Syrian armed opposition groups (TSOs) committed abuses, including torture, rape, looting, and appropriating private property, particularly in Kurdish areas, as well as vandalizing Yezidi religious sites in areas under their control. The COI, human rights groups, and media organizations reported killings, arbitrary detentions, rape, and torture of civilians, and the looting and seizure of private properties in and around Afrin. … The COI found that despite its territorial defeat, violent attacks by ISIS remnants had increased, while human rights organizations stated that ISIS often targeted civilians, persons suspected of collaborating with security forces, and groups ISIS deemed to be apostates."

Moreover, State added that "Christians reportedly continued to face discrimination and violence at the hands of violent extremist groups. NGOs reported social conventions and religious proscriptions continued to make conversions – especially Muslim-to-Christian conversions, which remained banned by law – relatively rare. These groups also reported that societal pressure continued to force converts to relocate within the country or to emigrate in order to practice their new religion openly."

One of the most disappointing aspects of Washington’s misadventures in both Iraq and Syria is the failure most anyone in the War Party to undertake any rethink, show any repentance, or exhibit any sorrow over the death and destruction that resulted from their policies. They did not intend to unleash hell upon civilians, of course, but hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Syrians, and others died in the "global war on terrorism." Yet most US policymakers appear to channel Madeleine Albright and believe that the price, mostly paid by other people, nevertheless was worth it. After all, insisted Albright, we stand taller and see further.

Paying an especially high price were Christians and other religious minorities. Yet many conservative Christian leaders seemed more interested in pandering to politicians than supporting foreign believers and pushed the Bush administration’s war campaign. Some evangelicals even imagined conquering new fields for planting the Gospel. After the invasion resulted in carnage, especially among Christian ranks, few religious leaders were inclined to rethink their militaristic stands, which seemed so contrary to the presentation of Jesus as the "Prince of Peace." Even then, before Donald Trump, many evangelicals were loyal, even reflexive Republican foot soldiers.

Horrendous violence has ravaged minority religious communities throughout the Middle East. Most responsible are the vicious, hate-filled extremists ready to kill those who believe differently. Thankfully, the worst of the violence has ebbed.

Nevertheless, Washington policymakers have done more than their share to destroy indigenous religious minorities throughout the Middle East. Many on the right have done so while posing as friends of the persecuted, penning articles and issuing statements of support for the victims of their own policies. The GOP paladins also befriended some of the worst, most vicious, religious despotisms, such as Saudi Arabia. Credulous evangelicals have even made a couple pilgrimages to the Kingdom, where Crown Prince Mohammed "Slice ‘n Dice" bin Salman, who not only murders but dismembers his critics, expressed his warm greetings.

If Christian conservatives really want to help fellow believers, they should take a new view of the Prince of Peace and oppose promiscuous intervention and war. That won’t end evil in the world. But it would stop making Americans complicit in so much destruction of human life and so many violations of human rights. Those who, in the words of John Quincy Adams, go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy" very often create new monsters that cause even greater harm.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.