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
“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
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,”
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
"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.