Displacing the Believers: The Grim Realities of Iraq's Beleaguered Christians

In the process, however, the army's unruly soldiery allied with local Kurdish tribes in a stunning fit of violence, sparked by fragile nationalism and fueled by religious bigotry. They pillaged dozens of Assyrian villages, slaughtered anywhere from 600 to 3,000 of their inhabitants, and—in an eerie precursor to the present day—drove thousands of Assyrian refugees out of the area, many of whom fled to neighboring Syria. This event remains a day of mourning for Assyrians worldwide and, along with the Ottoman slaughter of Armenians in 1915, served as a somber inspiration to Raphael Lemkin for his introduction of the term "genocide" to the League of Nations in 1933.

Fast-forward to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, to late Ba'athi Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and we find a marginally more secure situation for the nation's religious minorities. By that time, Iraqi Christians—Assyrian/Nestorian, Chaldean, Syrian Orthodox, and a variety of Armenian, Protestant, and other groups—were loosely protected by the same staunchly secular system that maintained an iron-fisted, authoritarian order over the whole country. After 70 years, a sense of Iraqi national identity was firmly in place, but despite this apparent stability, the old affiliations and tensions simmered just beneath the surface of Iraqi society. This was especially true for the restive Kurds and disadvantaged Shi'a, as was evident in the regime's violence against both following the first Gulf War in 1991. (In this sense, no one was really safe from the Ba'athi regime, which had no compunction during that crackdown about decimating northern Assyrian villages along with Kurdish ones.)

The American invasion of Iraq in 2003, and its subsequent occupation until late 2011, served as a major catalyst for a breakdown of that social order (such as it was, tightly controlled but presided over by a lawless regime). Within weeks of the fall of Hussein's government, the policy of de-Baathification served to clear the country of virtually all leadership but its traditional tribal and religious framework. In the meantime, the proliferation of Shi'ite and Sunni militias combined with an influx of foreign mujahideen, a widespread atmosphere of anarchy, and a devastated economy to create an unpredictable and violent atmosphere throughout the country. That violent setting affected all Iraqis, of course, and it was particularly hostile to any perceived "other" in their midst—including Christians, whom many extremists labeled as natural collaborators with the American "Crusaders."

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.

3/27/2012 4:00:00 AM
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