Christians in Iraq

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