Displacing the Believers: The Grim Realities of Iraq's Beleaguered Christians
It should speak volumes about the plight of Christianity in Iraq that Patriarch Beshara al-Rai, the controversial head of Lebanon's Maronite Catholic community, recently warned about the situation in Syria by pointing to the mass exodus of Iraqi Christians over the last decade.
The statistics are sobering: between one-half and two-thirds of Iraq's nearly 1.5 million Christians have been displaced over the last decade, some internally and others to neighboring countries. Most of those Christian refugees fled more than Iraq's general turmoil: they escaped horrific, targeted violence by Islamic extremist groups and threats of more of the same. This places the Iraqi context at the forefront of anxieties among many of the Middle East's Christian minorities, who ask: "Can this happen to us?"
Rather than relegating them to a historical footnote or cautionary tale, however, we must remember that there yet remain hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians in their war-torn country and as refugees in surrounding countries, and they need our support and prayers more than ever.
In a strange twist of historical irony, Iraq lays claim to the oldest civilization in the world—Mesopotamia—and yet, as a modern nation-state, it is relatively young. It was one of a series of new states created by the League of Nations out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. In this case, the League granted authority to Great Britain over the Mandate of Mesopotamia in 1919, which it held until bestowing independence on an Iraqi monarchy in 1932. From the first, it was an awkwardly delineated territory tucked alongside other mandates (e.g., Transjordan) and between the struggling monarchies of Persia to the east and the Ottomans (later the Republic of Turkey) in the northwest.
The awkwardness of Iraq's demarcation was not random, however. The French had divided Lebanon from Syria in part to grant Maronite Catholics a Mediterranean enclave to counter a Muslim-majority Syria. In a parallel strategy, the British planned an overarching Iraqi state that would pool its vast economic resources and defuse the separate ambitions of Iraq's three major people groups: Kurds in the north, Sunni Arabs mostly in the center, and Shi'ite Arabs—the most numerous community—predominant in the south.
Kurt J. Werthmuller is a research fellow at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom. He is the author of Coptic Identity and Ayyubid Politics in Egypt, 1218-1250, and he holds a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern history from the University of California, Santa Barbara (2007), an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University (2002), and a B.A. in history from Messiah College (1995).