The End of Christianity in Iraq

The news from Iraq has been especially grim of late. Daily it seems violent death is everywhere in the form of car bombings at mosques and other public facilities, ethnic cleansing carried out by militias roving about the streets seeking victims, even soldiers and police doubling as sectarian enforcers. The statistics themselves tell a grim tale. Baghdad’s morgue is receiving nearly twice as many dead Iraqis each day as it did last year. In June 2005, the Baghdad morgue was receiving 700 to 800 bodies a month, or an average of between 24 to 26 a day. In July of 2006, this number has shot up to an astounding 50.

This increase in the death toll is happening despite two events that were supposed to reduce the level of violence. First, almost 100,000 new U.S.-trained troops have been added since last year. Second, the U.S. military has an ongoing security "clampdown" in Baghdad designed to reign in the violence in the capital. Unfortunately, both the new troops and the "clampdown" have failed so blatantly, that even the US military was forced to admit that the level of violence in Baghdad has been hardly affected by its efforts.

Of course, the carnage is not limited to Baghdad alone. Nationwide, the situation is hardly any better. The United Nations mission in Baghdad recently reported that 2,669 civilians were killed across Iraq during May and 3,149 were killed in June. In total, 14,338 civilians were killed from January to June 2006.

Nor is life across Iraq in the midst of growing sectarian violence only becoming more dangerous for Iraqi civilians. Sunni insurgent attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces have been increasing at an alarming rate. Attacks on American and Iraqi troops in June 2006 grew 44 percent to 88 from 61 compared to June 2005. While the number of American troops killed by hostile fire has declined, life is just as dangerous for them as it has ever been in post-Saddam Iraq.

All of this violence and mayhem is tearing the country apart at an increasing rate. In Baghdad, the Tigris river has become a dividing line between the Sunni west and Shiite east. This divide is stranding many of the city’s seven million on the "wrong" side, making even their daily trips outside for shopping or to work into dangerous missions in enemy territory. To stay alive, many Iraqis have turned to fake IDs that can be used to fool sectarian militias out hunting for victims. For $35, those with easily identifiable sectarian names can get false documents that might mean the difference between life and death on an Iraqi street.

Other Iraqis have simply packed up and fled religiously mixed areas for what they hope will be safer ground among their co-religionists. The number of Iraqis who have registered for assistance as refugees within Iraq since the 22 February bombing of a Shiite shrine at Samarra stands at 162,000 people. Many of them live in 11 new tent camps. They include Abd Hammad al-Saeidi, who said that, “Gunmen told us to leave or they would kill us." The farmer from just south of Baghdad now lives with his family of 11 in a tent.

Obviously then, Iraq is rapidly becoming a nation of refugees. Sunnis and other minorities are leaving the south, while Shiites have been fleeing the areas around Baghdad and the north. For both the Sunni and Shia civilians caught in this cauldron of violence, the situation is tragic beyond description. However, as bad as things have been for Muslim Iraqis, for one vulnerable group of Iraqis, life inside "free Iraq" has been even more difficult. For the Assyrians, who are both Christian and the indigenous people of Iraq, the aftermath of Iraq's "liberation" has been downright catastrophic.

The Assyrian Christian population of Iraq has been brutalized by both ethnic and religious attacks since the US-led invasion in 2003. Glyn Ford, a UK Labor member of the European Parliament and member of the "Save the Assyrians" campaign, recently laid out a litany of woe that has befallen the Assyrians. Ford reports that torture, kidnapping, extortion, harassment, church bombings, forced religious conversion, political disenfranchisement and property destruction are just some of the deliberate human rights violations that are both ruining and taking the lives of Assyrians in Iraq.

The President of "Save the Assyrians," Andy Darmoo, told a news conference in New York, “Today, the situation is the worst we have ever lived in Iraq.”

Christians accounted for somewhere between five and twelve percent of the pre-war Iraqi population of 26 million. Most Iraqi Christians are Assyrians whose native language is a form of Aramaic. Over half of the Assyrian Iraqi community resides in the north, primarily in the Nineveh Plains and its surrounding areas. This location puts them at the mercy of America's allies, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which has been anything but kind to the Assyrians.

Shamiran Mako, an analyst with the Council for Assyrian Research and Development (CARD), a Canadian-based think-tank, told the IPS that since the "liberation" of Iraq, oppression has become more prevalent in the North.

“Recently, there have been systematic measures taken by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) officials, under the Kurdish-controlled areas to marginalise and suppress Assyrians through the dictatorial policies of the KRG.”

The remaining Assyrians living elsewhere in Iraq have faired little better, of course, as they have been frequently targeted by the insurgency, by religious extremists, and even by criminal gangs bent on earning ransom money. As Halfath Hamama, an Iraqi refugee who fled to Syria explained, “Our children, wives, and family members are kidnapped every day. They send us a note telling us to give them fifty thousand dollars or they will kill our family. They send us their fingers or toes, pictures of them beaten and bruised, and tell us we bring this on our head because we are Christians and collaborate with the Christian Americans.”

Anecdotal evidence aside, one must turn to the hard numbers to get the true measure of the Christian catastrophe unleashed by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in October 2005 show that around 700,000 Iraqis took refuge in Syria alone between October 2003 and March 2005. Of this number, fully 36 percent were Iraqi Christians, an astounding rate given their small percentage of the overall population of Iraq.

In total, over 250,000 Christian refugees are now stranded in Syria, Jordan and Turkey. This is not even counting those that are displaced within Iraq itself, many having fled north trying to find some measure of safety among other Assyrians. Despite the scale, however, of this human tragedy, the Assyrians have largely been left to their own devices.

While the Kurds, for example, have received millions of dollars in aid following the end of Saddam's regime, aid to the Assyrians has been almost non-existent. This has resulted in many refugees living in appalling conditions. It was even recently reported that some of the Assyrian refugees in northern Iraq had been reduced to sleeping on bare dirt in Christian cemeteries.

Since 2005, the Council for Assyrian Research and Development has sought to record the abuses endured by Assyrians through the Assyrian Human Rights Documentation Project. The first outcome paper produced by the group pulls no punches in its grim assessment. The paper warns, “At the current rates of ethnic cleansing, forced assimilation and migration, the indigenous Assyrian Christians will be fully eradicated from the new ‘democratic Iraq’ in less than 10 years … the Kurdification, Arabisation, and Islamification of Iraq have left an ancient people at the doors of extinction."

The Assyrians have been calling for assistance, and these pleas have largely fallen on deaf ears. What is most needed is an Assyrian Administrative Unit, a safe haven that would be administered and guarded by the Assyrians themselves. While international groups such as the European Parliament have issued declarations and resolutions of support, the actual power in Iraq, the United States, appears to have already relegated the Assyrians to the dustbin of history. Unless the American people themselves choose to demand a policy reversal, it is unlikely that the Bush Administration will become interested in the fate of Iraqi Christians on its own accord.

It is doubtful that George W. Bush will be remembered as the American President who brought Jeffersonian Democracy to the Middle East. But it appears that at least one historic achievement is well within his grasp. It is quite likely that "W" will succeed where the Arab Caliphate, the Mongol Empire, the Ottoman Empire, British colonialism, and decades of Ba'athist misrule all failed. When "W" finally saunters off the world stage, the Assyrian Christian community in Iraq will probably be gone as well.

And the world will be a much poorer place because of it.

July 25, 2006