Displacing the Believers: The Grim Realities of Iraq's Beleaguered Christians
This hostility translated into horrific violence against Christian minorities almost immediately, a trend that was exacerbated by a culture of impunity that allowed virtually all of the perpetrators to escape without accountability or justice. The following examples, in fact, are only a sample of the broader, bloody trend: first, a series of church bombings around the country rocked the community between August and October 2004, killing at least fifteen. In October 2006, a Syrian Orthodox priest in Mosul was kidnapped, beheaded, and dismembered. In March 2008, masked gunmen snatched the Chaldean archbishop of the same city; his body was found in a shallow grave several days later. In October 2010, al-Qaida-affiliated militants stormed a Catholic church in Baghdad in a brief siege that left over 53 Christians (including two priests) and 17 others dead, and a series of bomb and mortar attacks only days later targeted predominantly Christian neighborhoods of the city. Violence reached such a point in late 2010 that Archbishop Athanasios Dawood, representing Iraq's Syrian Orthodox community in the UK, took the shocking step of calling on his fellow Iraqi Christians to pack up and leave the country.
In fact, Iraqi refugees had already been fleeing the country's violence for neighboring Jordan and Syrian, likely reaching a peak in 2007 and 2008. Christians, however, came to be disproportionately represented among their ranks: they comprised only five percent of the Iraqi population, but they have been estimated to represent between one half and two thirds of all of the country's refugees and internally displaced persons. Most of those who left Baghdad and other parts of the Sunni and Shi'ite areas fled to Syria, Jordan, or Iraqi Kurdistan, where they have lingered in relative safety but with few opportunities for work or long-term stability. Although some Christian families are rumored to have crossed back to northern Iraq, the fate of the tens of thousands of Christian and other refugees now trapped in the socio-political chaos of Syria remains virtually unknown.
Given these dire circumstances, and the uncertain future of those fewer than 500,000 who remain, is it any wonder that Christian and other non-Muslim minorities around the Middle East are casting a wary eye on Iraq's Christians? And what can be done for them?
There are modest ways to help here in the United States: contact your congressional representatives and other policymakers, particularly those involved in foreign policy, and insist that they encourage international agencies and Iraqi counterparts to pay attention to this besieged community. Encourage them as well to consider seriously the plight of Iraq's hundreds of thousands of refugees, especially those whose status in Syria is unknown, those under Kurdish authority in Iraq's north, and those who are seeking resettlement in the United States and other western countries (e.g., expediting related asylum petitions).
Most important, do not forget Iraq's Christians: remember them in your conversations, in your political engagement, in your support for relief agencies, and in your prayers.
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).