Christians in Iraq

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Many
public services such as water and electricity may be spotty in Iraq,
but at least mail delivery seems to be going well enough. Christian
Assyrian families all over Iraq have been receiving versions of
the following letter delivered to them in their homes:

By the
name of God the most merciful and compassionate!
"Do
not adorn yourselves as illiterate women before Islam."
From
the leadership of Islamic troops of "Al-Bader"

To this
noble family:

We hope
that the head of this family will stand with the "brothers
of Muslims" group and follow basic Muslim rules of wearing
the veil and possessing honorable teaching of Islam that Moslems
have continued from old epoch. We are the Iraqi people, the Muslim
people that do not accept any mistakes.

If not
— and the message will not be followed, we will take the actions
of:

1. Killing.
2.
Kidnapping.
3.
Burning the house with its occupants or exploding it.

For
the Christian community of Iraq, one of the oldest on Earth, the
message is crystal clear. Convert to Islam, or at least comport
yourself to Islamic law — including the veil for your women. Or
else you will regret it.

The
threats contained in this letter are, unfortunately, all too real.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Assyrians have been the targets
of numerous fatal attacks. In Shiite-dominated Southern Iraq, there
have been many accounts of Assyrian businessmen being shot dead
on the street for such crimes as running liquor stores or selling
other goods prohibited by Islamic law.

Under
the regime of Saddam Hussein, Christians had been allowed to peacefully
conduct such business without fear. Under U.S. and British liberation,
many Christians are closing their shops or switching to other merchandise.
Church officials have also been attacked. His Grace, Bishop Mar
Adai of the Assyrian Church of the East was attacked on the streets
of Baghdad. His assailants wanted to steal his gold cross from around
his neck.

In
the Kurdish enclave of Northern Iraq, America's Kurdish allies have
also been paying attention to the Christians in their midst. It
has been reported by Assyrians in various villages scattered throughout
Northern Iraq that they have been illegally forced out of their
own homes and off their land. They report being constantly pressured
to convert to Islam in exchange for guarantees of their safety from
the Kurds.

Perhaps
the worst of all have been the kidnappings. On August 6th
the LA Times reported of these crimes, "The kidnappings
have a dark, ruthless quality, often targeting children and teenagers,
usually from Iraq’s tiny Christian community where no tribal networks
exist to fight back against the gangs."

Who
Are the Iraqi Christians?

Most
Christians in Iraq are ethnically Assyrian. The Assyrians are the
original inhabitants of the land now referred to as Iraq. The Gospel
was preached to the Assyrians by the Apostle Thomas himself, shortly
after the Resurrection of Christ. The majority of the Assyrian population
had converted to Christianity by the second century, giving the
Assyrians a legitimate claim to being the first Christian nation
in history.

Fired
by their new faith, the Assyrians began one of the most successful
missionary enterprises of all time. By the end of the twelfth century
the Assyrian Church spanned the Asian continent, from Syria to the
Philippines. Marco Polo reported that during his visit to China
in the thirteenth century, he was astonished to find Assyrian priests
in the Chinese royal court, and tens of thousands of Chinese Christians.
The Assyrian missionaries had been there since the sixth century,
and had made such an impact that the first Mongolian system of writing
used the Assyrian alphabet.

Over
the next centuries, however, Muslim rule and its attendant repression
eventually reduced the Assyrians in number and sapped the vigor
of their culture. By the mid-1800s wholesale slaughter of Assyrians
was being reported at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, under whose
control their homeland had fallen. Between 1914 and 1918, two-thirds
of all living Assyrians were murdered in a genocide the world has
chosen to ignore.

Today,
on its ancestral soil, all that is left of the world's oldest Christian
nation is a desperate minority of less than one million people.
It didn't have to be this way. As one Assyrian anonymously wrote,
"Today's Assyrians are the descendents of courageous Christians
who resisted many attempts of Arabization and surrender to the Islam.
They repeatedly paid with their lives and all their possessions
to preserve their beliefs in Jesus Christ. What is so sad, is that
I honestly believe that if my ancient ancestors had chosen to adopt
Islam instead of Christianity, today, Iraq would be an Assyrian
country, not an Arab one. Just like Turkey or Iran, we would be
a Muslim country with our own language and identity, instead of
a persecuted minority whom the world has forgotten. For Christ,
we have sacrificed all."

A
Difference of Opinion

There
are Assyrians, both in and outside Iraq, who believe the current
U.S. occupation could be the answer to their prayers. They hope
that U.S. forces will convert Iraq into a modern state, with a secular
constitution and an autonomous region in which the Assyrians can
live in peace. To this end, some Assyrians have supported U.S. troops
in various ways, even risking their lives as guides and interpreters
in the field. A few have been killed in action serving alongside
U.S. troops.

There
are other Assyrians who are not convinced that the occupation will
make life better. They remember that when the British ruled Iraq,
in the middle of the 20th Century, their situation actually
got worse. Saddam Hussein was a brutal tyrant. He led his people
into senseless wars that got hundreds of thousands of them killed.
But, as these Assyrians point out, Saddam and his regime did have
at least one redeeming characteristic — the genie of Islamic militancy
was ruthlessly bottled up. Now that the U.S. and Britain have seized
control of Iraq, the cork has been popped.

Islamic
militancy is growing, and appears to be gaining steam. To make matters
worse, civil wars appear to be brewing within, as well as between,
the major ethnic factions such as the Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds.

So
far the skeptical Assyrians seem to be the most prescient. U.S.
forces in Iraq are spread thin, and taking casualties everyday.
They are unable to prevent themselves from being assaulted, even
when traveling in armed convoys. U.S. forces also appear unable
to guarantee the security of Iraqi civilians. Many Assyrians view
the rising tide of anti-Christian violence as evidence of U.S. impotence
to protect them.

But
even if the U.S. forces could protect the Assyrians from their Muslim
neighbors, there is no guarantee that they would even want to.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that U.S. policy makers
in Iraq consider the Christians to be a "most inconvenient
minority." Evidencing too much concern for Iraqi Christians,
it is feared, would reinforce the idea that the U.S. is fighting
a “war on Islam,” thereby strengthening the resistance to U.S. forces.
It is obvious to observers on the ground that Washington would prefer
if the whole messy problem of Iraqi Christians would just go away.

Occupied
Iraq is an unstable and dangerous place. Only now that the true
bill seems to be coming due, are members of Congress and concerned
citizens asking questions they should have posed months ago. In
the cauldron of violence that is Iraq, the U.S. stands ready to
lose men, money, and equipment seemingly indefinitely. They are
losses that will be grievous, but as a nation, the U.S. will survive.

The
Assyrians, in contrast, stand to lose everything, and no one seems
particularly concerned.

Conservatives
Don't Care About Foreign Christians

No
one expects liberals to care much for the fate of Christian communities
in the Third World. On the other hand, almost anyone would expect
conservatives to care about the persecution and suffering endured
by Christians throughout the world. After all, aren't conservatives
pro-life, pro-Bible, and pro-prayer? Isn't the Republican Party
the party of the God-fearing? Given the rhetoric of many Republican
politicians and pundits, one would definitely expect a great deal
of concern.

Sadly,
this just isn't the case. Prior to the invasion of Iraq, no conservative
politicians or pundits of note expressed concern over what an invasion
would mean for the Christian community there. Now that the U.S.
has occupied Iraq, and is failing miserably in its obligation to
protect the Christian minority, the topic goes unmentioned.

Why
Don't Conservatives Care About Christians?

The
answer to this question is surprisingly simple. Conservative politicians
and pundits care little for the welfare of Christians outside the
United States for one primary reason.

The
Evangelical Christian base of the Republican Party doesn't care.
There have been no demonstrations protesting the inability/unwillingness
of U.S. forces to protect Iraqi Christians. Their cause has not
been championed by any of the televangelists. Christian persecution
in post-Saddam Iraq has not been a centerpiece article in any of
the Evangelical magazines. At the same time, there have been large
protests against the Bush Administration's u2018Roadmap for Peace,'
a plan many Evangelicals opposed as being too tough on the Israelis.
The message is clear to Christians outside the U.S. – Israel
matters and you don't.

Worse
still, even when Evangelicals do pay attention to Christians outside
American borders, it is often tinged with hostility. Ask the Serbs
or the Israeli Christians about that. Of course, the Evangelicals
do not consider Catholic or Orthodox Christians to be Christians.
Somehow, though, one has to doubt that Jesus feels that way, especially
when so many of those suffering persecution for His name are from
those communions. If strength in the faith under adverse conditions
is the measure of a Christian, then surely many Catholic and Orthodox
believers are among the greatest living. Would that the Evangelicals
only recognized that fact, while there is still time to prevent
any more suffering.

September
15, 2003

Glen
Chancy [send him mail]
is a graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in Political
Science, and a certificate in Eastern European Studies. A former
University lecturer in Poland, he currently holds an MBA in Finance
and works in Orlando, Florida as a business analyst for an international
software developer.


        
        

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