The Vanishing Christians of Iraq

February 22, 2007

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Last October, a Syrian Orthodox priest, Fr. Boulos Iskander, went shopping for auto parts in the Iraqi city of Mosul. He was never seen alive again. A Muslim group kidnapped him and initially demanded $350,000 in ransom; they eventually lowered this to $40,000, but added a new demand: Fr. Boulos’ parish had to denounce the remarks made the previous month by Pope Benedict XVI that caused rioting all over the Islamic world. The ransom was paid, and the church dutifully posted thirty large signs all over Mosul, but to no avail: Fr. Boulos was not only murdered but dismembered. Five hundred Christians attended his funeral, where another priest commented: “Many more wanted to come to the funeral, but they were afraid. We are in very bad circumstances now.”

That is true of Christians all over the Middle East, where safe havens for Christians are dwindling rapidly. Even in Lebanon, traditionally the Middle East’s sole Christian land, Christians suffer persecution, which leads to declining numbers and declining influence – and that in turn encourages more persecution. Christian communities that date back to the dawn of Christianity have been steadily decreasing in numbers; now the faith is on the verge of disappearing from the area altogether. In Iraq, half of the nation’s prewar 700,000 Christians have now fled the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iraqi Christians today are streaming into Syria or, if they can, out of the Middle East altogether. Much of this migration can be attributed to the resurgence of Islamic militarism in recent decades. Indeed, the career trajectories of two twentieth-century regional titans, Yasir Arafat as well as Saddam, are particularly illuminating: Arafat began as a secular nationalist in the Soviet camp and ended up trying to fend off and co-opt a challenge from the Islamic jihadists of Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) and Islamic Jihad. Saddam was never a Muslim hardliner, and was indeed notorious for his personal divergences from Islamic orthodoxy; nevertheless, in the last days of his regime he did not hesitate to cast himself as a mujahid par excellence, a defender of Islam who deserved the support of all pious believers.

The fact that both Arafat and Saddam began, broadly speaking, as secularists and ended as mujahedin, however insincere and incomplete their poses may have been, is emblematic of developments all over the Middle East. After a long period of relative quiescence that stretched through the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent colonial period, the Islamic jihad ideology that mandates warfare against and subjugation of unbelievers is back with a vengeance. Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, the Melkite Greek Catholic Eparch of Newton, Massachusetts, and former Archbishop of the Hizballah stronghold Baalbeck, Lebanon, explained in a March 2006 address: “The doctrines of Islam,” he said, “dictate war against unbelievers.” Peaceful Muslims do not find strong support for their views within Islamic tradition: “the concept of nonviolence is absent from Muslim doctrine and practice.” The ultimate goal of Islamic theology, as preached by imams all over the Islamic world, is “the surrender of all people to Islam and to God’s power based on Islamic law [Sharia]. [Muslims] have to defend this peace of God even by force.”

Such ideas have come aggressively to the fore in Iraq since the people of Baghdad pulled down the giant statue of Saddam. And not only in Iraq. Around the Islamic world, Islam is newly energized; this resurgence stems from a variety of factors – most notably, Saudi oil billions made available for the spread of the global jihad, and the stimulating example of the Khomeini revolution in Iran, which showed that it could be done: Islamic jihadists could capture and rule a state. Within Iraq, Saddam brutally suppressed Islamic supremacists, but now they are the most powerful forces in the country.

Christians have been the principal victims of this. Besides dictating war against unbelievers, Islamic law mandates that Christians be subjected to a second-class status that exacts from them a special tax (jizya; cf. Qur’an 9:29) from which Muslims are exempt, not hold authority over Muslims, not build new churches or repair old ones, and submit to various other humiliating and discriminatory regulations. However, these laws have not been in force in Iraq since it was an Ottoman province – and under Western pressure, the Ottoman Empire abolished this discriminatory system, the dhimma, in the 1850s. In Saddam’s Iraq, as well as Hafez Assad’s Syria, lawmakers took their cue more from Western law than Islamic law, and Christians enjoyed relative equality with Muslims. But those days are over, at least in Iraq.

Although the laws of the dhimma are not fully enforced anywhere in the Islamic world today, both Sunni and Shi’ite Islamic jihad groups are reasserting them. Women have been threatened with kidnapping or death if they do not wear a headscarf; in accord with traditional Islamic legal restrictions on Christians “openly displaying wine or pork” (in the words of a legal manual endorsed by Cairo’s venerable Al-Azhar University), liquor store owners in Iraq have likewise been threatened. Many of their businesses have been destroyed, and the owners have fled. A onetime Iraqi liquor store owner now living in Syria lamented that “before the war there was no separation between Christian and Muslim. Under Saddam no one asked you your religion, and we used to attend each other’s religious services and weddings. After the invasion we hoped democracy would come; but instead all that came was bombs, kidnapping and killing. Now at least 75% of my Christian friends have fled. There is no future for us in Iraq.”

And there may not be in Syria either. Bashar Al-Assad, like his father, is an Alawite – an enigmatic offshoot of Shi’ite Islam that blends elements of Christianity with Islam and is generally considered only marginally orthodox by the Sunnis. The Alawites comprise roughly twelve percent of Syria’s population. The Assad regime, aware that the majority Sunnis regards Alawites with suspicion and contempt, have long fostered an alliance of convenience of sorts with another group that Sunnis generally despise: Christians. Christians face various forms of petty discrimination in Syria – including, most notably, job discrimination, but they nevertheless enjoy a better situation there than virtually anywhere else in the Islamic world. However, the post-Saddam era in Iraq indicates just how precarious this position really is. While Bashar Assad keeps himself in power by giving jihadists a more or less free hand to use Syria as a base of operations, this has so far not extended to imposing Sharia restrictions on Christians. Were “regime change” to come to Syria, Christians would almost certainly face what they now suffer in Iraq: the rapid erosion of the rights and liberties they have enjoyed under a relatively secular government, and the brutal imposition of second-class status upon them. Christians in the West who are aware of the plight of their brethren in the Middle East are therefore in the uncomfortable position of supporting Bashar Assad as the lesser of two evils – at least in regard to his treatment of Christians.

Some suspect that even darker motives are in play as Christians stream out of the Middle East. Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregory III, who lives in Damascus, declared in April 2006 that “after 11 September, there is a plot to eliminate all the Christian minorities from the Arabic world….Our simple existence ruins the equations whereby Arabs can’t be other than Moslems, and Christians but be westerners….If the Chaldeans, the Assyrians, the Orthodox, the Latin Catholics leave, if the Middle East is cleansed of all the Arabic Christians, the Moslem Arab world and a so-called Christian Western world will be left face to face. It will be easier to provoke a clash and justify it with religion. That is why I wrote a letter in July to all the Arab rulers, to explain how important it is that this small presence, 15 million Arab Christian scattered among 260 million Moslems, not be swept away.”

So far his words have gone unheeded. Christians in the West are generally surprised just to discover that there are ancient communities of Christians in the Middle East at all. Extending a helping hand to them necessarily involves difficult issues of American relationships with Islamic countries, which is enough to make the task too daunting for most. Evangelical groups that focus on the persecution of Christians around the world have tended to ignore the plight of Middle Eastern Christians, since most of the latter belong to the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, which some Evangelicals do not even regard as Christian at all. There are, however, some notable exceptions to this: the Christian news service Compass Direct, for instance, provides solid news about the persecution of all Christians, without practicing sectarian exclusion. Meanwhile, the anti-Christian rhetoric (see Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Chris Hedges, etc.) that has become increasingly fashionable in the popular culture makes it difficult for many to see Christians as victims at all. Like the jihadists, some in the West regard Middle Eastern Christians as effectively the agents of a sinister foreign power: the United States.

And so their numbers continue to dwindle. It may be that, when the dust finally settles in the Middle East, the only clear result of the great American democracy project in Iraq will have been to allow for Sharia supremacists in Iraq to assert themselves with new confidence (and brutality) – and the concomitant destruction of the ancient and storied Church of Babylon of the Chaldeans.


Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch, a project of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and the author of two New York Times bestsellers: The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad.

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