The future of Christianity in Iraq is in grave doubt amid growing violence against members of the faith as U.S. influence in the Muslim nation declines.
Darrell Castle is a foreign policy adviser, a former Marine Corps officer in Vietnam and foreign policy adviser to the Constitution Party. He says there were 500,000 Christians in Iraq at the war’s beginning.
“These people were apparently safe under Saddam Hussein’s rule since his strong-man rule held down religious violence and kept the various factions from killing each other to the extent possible,” Castle said.
But estimates now are that in some areas of the still-troubled nation, three-quarters of the Christians have fled. They’re simply gone.
Those who remain face attacks such as the one that has been reported in recent days. There, a gang of seven gun- and explosive-toting Islamic militants burst into a church during Sunday services and took more than 100 hostages. Two priests and more than 50 members of the congregation were killed.
Scores more were wounded.
The church is the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, where American protection has been in play for much of the last few years.
A report issued by the Christian human rights group, Christian Persecution Update, India, states Muslims in Iraq have stepped up attacks against Christians since the beginning of the war because the church symbolizes anti-Muslim persecution.
International Christian Concern’s Middle East analyst Aidan Clay agrees, adding that the decreasing Christian population is a reality and a serious problem.
“This (anti-Christian violence) has been an ongoing thing, especially since the beginning of the war in Iraq in 2003. Of the 500,000 Christians in Iraq, over half have left the country,” Clay explained.
Clay adds that the decreasing Christian numbers are even more pronounced in the city.
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“In Baghdad, over three-quarters of the Christians have left the city. Some of those people had just left refugee camps, coming to Baghdad hoping the security had improved, but it hasn’t,” Clay observed.
“They’ve always felt insecure, but since this latest attack, hope is quickly diminishing,” Clay stated.
In attempting to bridge the gap between the reality of the situation and the connection to the U.S. military operation, Clay explains that American policy makers tend to overlook Iraq’s Christian minority.
“The U. S. has never put minority groups, including Christian groups, as a priority in their ongoing war in Iraq. The Christians have never been in the forefront of the U.S.’s concerns in their ongoing effort in the war,” Clay claimed.
Clay explains that the U.S.-led Iraqi government officially recognizes 14 different
churches, but adds that even the recognized churches in Iraq are usually pushed aside in policy discussions between the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
Castle points out that Iraq never has been a completely cohesive nation state, adding that some of the blame for the present reality needs to be shared by the history of the country and the region’s colonial governments.
“Iraq is not a naturally existing country, but is instead a group of tribal religious factions who have hated and fought each other for centuries and who were all cobbled together by the British who simply drew some lines on a map. Those old hatreds are still there but were kept at bay to an extent, but now they are loose again,” Castle added.
Castle said the decreasing influence of the United States will prompt the various ethnic factions to again turn their anger on one another.
“They apparently hate Washington more than each other, but as Washington’s influence wanes, we should expect more hatred, chaos, war and above all, massacres,” Castle said.
Clay says that human rights groups are concerned about the continued viability of Christianity in Iraq, even as a minority religion.
“That’s one of our greatest fears for Iraq. I don’t think Christianity will ever be
completely swept out of the country, but most Christians are leaving. They don’t
ever want to return because there’s no security for them,” Clay stated.
“There’s no employment and there’s no hope to live in that country. This was just one of the final blows,” Clay further observed.
Castle states that the United States should do something to help persecuted Christians in Iraq.
“I remember that my answer to a reporter over dinner was to offer them asylum in the U.S. or any country of their choosing that would accept them. If that had been done, most would be safe by now,” Castle added.
He adds that the present administration hasn’t improved the situation.
“Religious freedom and especially religious persecution seem to be lost on our current administration except as it might be applied against Muslims so I doubt that there will be much sympathy or action from the U.S. It is not too late to evacuate those Christians who want it as politically persecuted people,” Castle continued.
Castle believes that further military intervention is not the answer.
“I don’t see a realistic military answer to the problem. Military solutions caused the problem or at least made it worse. So other than security for a safe evacuation, I don’t see one,” Castle observed.
Clay says that the best way to help Iraqi Christians is to listen to their needs.
“Christian voices need to be listened to and engaging the church leadership.
Their voice needs to be heard,” Clay explained.
“It is about policies and steps forward, to address these issues. But it’s also about listening to these voices, a starting point of listening to these voices that the U. S. has neglected since the war began,” Clay said.