Christians had been fleeing Iraq for years before the U.S. invasion in 2003. The ancient Assyrian Church of the East saw four-fifths of its members emigrate before 2000 and its ancient patriarchate transferred to Chicago. The government of Saddam Hussein persecuted the Assyrians because of their resistance to Arabization and adherence to their traditional language, Syriac. Now other Christians who survived under Saddam have succumbed to the combined pressures of radical Islam and the chaos of war. More than half the remaining Christian population has fled Iraq since the U.S. invasion.
The vulnerability of Christians became more evident Feb. 29 with the kidnapping of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Faraj Rahho. Despite the apparent decline in violence following an increase in U.S. troops with last year’s surge, there has been no letup in the pressures on Iraqi Christians. The depopulation of the churches continues; hundreds of thousands of Christians now live an uncertain existence as refugees in Jordan and elsewhere, with no path to a better future. In the last year, many of those who hoped to remain in Iraq had moved to the relative quiet of northern Iraq, where Mosul is the major population center. The high-profile disappearance of the archbishop may prove the fatal blow to the Christian presence in Iraq.
The churches of the Middle East are the inheritors of rich religious traditions in liturgy, theology, spirituality, language and culture. Prior to the U.S. invasion, Iraq was home to an array of Christian communities. Some Assyrians, members of the Church of the East, remained. The largest Christian church consisted of their Catholic cousins, the Chaldeans. In addition, there were Syrian and Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman) as well as Melkite (Greek) Catholics and evangelicals. The disorder that followed the American occupation increasingly made Christians victims of violence. Their businesses were burned, their churches bombed, women harassed and priests murdered. Now they are deprived of their homeland, a disabling blow to the identity of people who take pride in their heritage. The loss of historic variety, as these eastern Christians either languish in exile or assimilate to foreign cultures, diminishes the world Christian community, including the Christian West.
In general, crimes against Christians have been perpetrated by jihadists and xenophobic criminals unleashed by war’s chaos. In the long term, the surest route to security for the region’s Christians lies in a peace that includes not only a political settlement but also the ascendancy of moderate Muslims and the taming of radicals. This is true not only of Iraq but also of other war-torn countries in the region, like Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories.
In addition, a wiser, less bullying foreign and military policy on the part of the United States is in order. The invasion of Iraq, the U.S. backing for Israel’s war on Hezbollah and the U.S. failure to be an honest broker in the Middle East peace process have accelerated the flow of Christian emigration from the region. In Iraq, where domination by force had failed atrociously, the surge has had modest success because it combines a restrained show of force with on-the-ground diplomacy and civil-political initiatives.
The lessons of General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy need to be applied more broadly to U.S. policy in the region and to the U.S. alliance with Israel. The American public also needs to discourage politicians who posture about security. In moments of crisis, preserving an image of toughness inevitably increases pressure to do the wrong thing. Such falconlike thinking led to the Iraq war, the Israel-Hezbollah war and, predictably, to the crisis Christianity now faces across the region. What is needed instead is a sober realism that understands the place of justice and the perception of justice, as well as of the use of limited force, in securing a peaceful and stable world.
In the meantime, the United States owes a debt of honor to grant admission to Iraqi refugees who are unable to return to their country, Christians chief among them. Given the pool of two million refugees, the projected admission numbers (7,000 for 2007) have been paltry; and the low number of actual admissions (1,608) is a disgrace. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the United States was able to absorb 760,000 Vietnamese refugees. Where strategic interests are involved, as with concern for Soviet Jews during the cold war, admission is a high priority. Today the United States bears significant responsibility for the displacement of the Christian population from the Middle East. It can make amends for its offense by setting much higher admissions quotas for Iraqis to enter this country, by supporting countries like Jordan, which bear the burden of hospitality for the émigrés, and by working with other countries for their resettlement.