For Iraqi Christians, US surge didn't bring peace, security

The cathedral attack was only unusual in that it occurred in Baghdad, instead of Christian centers in the north.

Iraq Church attack (photo credit: AP)
Iraq Church attack
(photo credit: AP)
The deadly attack on a church in the heart of Baghdad two weeks ago shocked the world and drew widespread condemnation, but in fact Iraq’s Christians never shared in the peace and security that followed the US surge operation in 2007, according to some analysts.
The raid on Baghdad’s Syrian Catholic Cathedral garnered attention because of the extent of the violence – 53 people killed and 67 wounded – and because it occurred in the capital where the world’s media are based. But while targeted violence against Christians has been less common in the capital, elsewhere in Iraq Christians have remained under unremitting assault by the Muslim majority even as the surge ostensibly brought quiet.
“There is a widespread perception in the West that violence in Iraq has gone down and that there is a stable situation there, and with the new government and all,” Mark Lattimer, director of the Minority Rights Group, told The Media Line. “But the situation for minorities is at least as dangerous as it was in 2006 and 2007.”
All across the Middle East, the original womb of the Christian faith before its center moved to Europe, Christians are leaving for safer and more prosperous places. Growing Muslim extremism and economies that can’t provide enough jobs and business opportunities have made the region less hospitable.
Although there are no official figures, Iraq’s Christians are widely believed to have numbered about 1.3 million when the U.S. overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or no more than 5% of the population. The population had plunged to between 300,000 to 500,000 before the attack on the Syrian Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance, or Sayidat Al-Najat, October 31st. They are believed to have emigrated to the West or become regional refugees.
Gunmen identifying themselves as members of the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant organization linked with al-Qaida, broke through the cathedral’s security wall, took 100 worshipers hostage and shot the priest. Most of the victims died hours later when the attackers detonated suicide vests as security forces raided the building.
A spate of violence targeting Christian homes and shops ensued over the next week, leaving 6 dead and 33 wounded. But Ali Al-Saffar, a London-based Iraqi journalist who writes for the Economist Intelligence Unit, said the attacks didn’t represent a specific new campaign against Christians.
“It can be regarded as normal Iraqi violence. It’s been done before in the past, and it’s not entirely new,” he told The Media Line.
Across Iraq, sectarian violence has been on the upswing in the last few months as U.S. troops withdraw and militants test the ability of Iraqi security forces to maintain order and calm. Since July, a newly re-energized al-Qaida has staged attacks on Iraq's central bank, army headquarters and serial bombing attacks in Shiite neighborhoods.
Iraqi Christians, in fact, were safer during the years of Saddam Hussein’s rule. The government would never have tolerated inter-communal violence, and Christians, most notably Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minster Tariq Aziz, were among the country’s most powerful leaders.
The US invasion liberated Iraqis from an oppressive police state, but it also let loose deadly religious and ethnic rivalries. Only one Christian serves in parliament today and none serve in the cabinet. The growing violence prompted America to increase its troop strength and quell much of the death and mayhem – but not for Christians.
The surge did lead to a decline in civilian deaths in Iraq, but most of the success was confined to Baghdad. However, in cities like Mosul and Kirkuk in the north, where the majority of Christian and other minorities are concentrated, the situation deteriorated, Lattimer of the London-based Minority Rights Group aid.
“The security situation since and during the surge is quite different than it has been portrayed in the Western media. In fact, it got worse,” said Lattimer.
Violence against Christians jumped in the run up to the provincial elections in 2009, apparently in response to a bill that would set aside a larger number of seats in parliament for Christians. Attacks on Christians followed in Mosul, leaving 40 dead and displacing 12,000 of the city’s Christian residents.
Syrian Orthodox Archbishop Athanasios Dawood told his congregation in Britain on November 7th that Iraqi Christians should leave their homeland.
"I say clearly and now -- the Christian people should leave their beloved land of our ancestors and escape the premeditated ethnic cleansing. This is better than having them killed one by one," he said.
But Al-Saffar said he didn’t expect to see any further large-scale emigration because the situation hasn’t gotten appreciably worse. “What will happen is that some will choose to migrate, but at the same time many will stay,” he said.
At a recent convening at the Vatican of Middle East bishops to discuss the plight of Christians in the region, the delegation praised Christians in places such as Iraq who had stayed “in times of adversity, suffering and anguish” and encouraged those who felt compelled to leave their country to one day return to their homeland.
Al-Saffar added that for many, there is a fear that Iraq, once considered a melting pot of cultures in the Middle East, will lose a central aspect of that legacy. “There is a fear that they will loose the Christians, just like they lost the Jewish community,” he said.