The hemorrhaging of Iraqi Christians

Middle East Christians seek honest acknowledgment of their suffering and its true inflictors.

Breaking news (photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
Breaking news
(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
The world was shocked by the news of an al-Qaida terror cell’s brutal bloodbath inside a Baghdad cathedral in late October. Radical Muslim militiamen stormed the church and held dozens of people hostage while issuing a litany of far-ranging demands, including the release of several Egyptian women who allegedly had converted to Islam and were being held against their will by the Coptic Church. In an ensuing shoot-out with Iraqi police, the gunmen slaughtered 44 Christian worshipers, two priests and seven security personnel.
This cruel atrocity was followed by a series of ongoing Islamist attacks targeting Baghdad’s Christian neighborhoods, including a string of 13 coordinated bombings two weeks later that claimed another six lives, sowing panic among the dwindling members of this two millennia-old Christian community, many of whom openly spoke of fleeing.
In actuality, Iraq’s Christian community has been under brutal assault by radical Islamic elements for several years now, an easy prey in the chaotic aftermath of the US-led invasion. While achieving its objective of toppling the despotic regime of Saddam Hussein, that conflict was deliberately prolonged by global jihadists who decided to make Iraq the central battleground of their embittered campaign against the free, democratic world. Native Iraqi Christians, in their minds, were nothing more than traitorous allies of the “Crusader” West.
Thus five churches were bombed in Baghdad on one Sunday alone in 2004. Christians have been regularly kidnapped and held for ransom, Christian shops torched, priests beheaded and Christian women beaten for “un-Islamic” dress. Iraqi Christians have even been targeted for perceived offenses against Islam committed thousands of miles away, as in the case of the Danish cartoon riots in 2005 and the pope’s remarks on Islam in September 2006.
While all segments of Iraqi society have suffered in this violence-plagued period, the Christians’ suffering has been disproportionate, as has been their emigration abroad, according to reports by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. In under a decade, the Chaldean, Assyrian, Syriac, Armenian and Protestant flocks have declined from an estimated 1.4 million to roughly half that number. The Christian presence in Baghdad is now one-third of its former strength.
Other Christian minorities throughout the Middle East have experienced similar attrition rates over recent decades, be it the Egyptian Coptics, Lebanese Maronites or the Greek Orthodox faithful in Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian areas (Israel’s growing Christian population is the lone exception in the region).
This unprecedented Christian exodus from Arab lands has become a serious cause for concern among Western church hierarchies, and was slated to be a major topic of discussion at the Vatican’s recent synod of Catholic bishops from the Middle East. In fact, a groundbreaking document compiled ahead of that gathering identified “political Islam” – for the first time – as the prevailing reason for the Christian flight.
Yet by the time the Middle East bishops concluded their two-week summit in Rome, anti-Israel agitators among them had somehow swayed the entire lot to blame all their problems on the Jews.
The synod’s concluding “Message” barely mentioned the main problems plaguing their congregations, such as the rise of radical Islam and official as well as societal constraints on religious freedom.
Instead, it issued a plea for the international community to work “to put an end to the occupation” of Palestinian territories, thus spotlighting Israel as the main source of torment.
Archbishop Cyril Salim Bustros, head of the Greek Melkite Church in America, went even further in his comments made while introducing the synod’s final communique. He insisted that was it “unacceptable” for Israel to take “recourse to biblical positions which use the word of God to wrongly justify injustices,” a statement lifted directly from the Message itself. He also maintained that “we Christians cannot speak of the ‘Promised Land’ as an exclusive right for a privileged Jewish people... This promise was nullified by Christ... There is no longer a chosen people.”
A Vatican spokesman tried to brush aside his undignified remarks as an “individual” view, ignoring the fact that Bustros was speaking as the official secretary for the synod.
The absurdity of this clerical charade was laid bare by the Baghdad cathedral massacre just a few days later, as it would have been incredibly hard to blame that tragedy on Israel. Ironically, Bustros is bishop over a growing Greek Melkite Church in the United States precisely because so many from his denomination have been squeezed out of their home parishes by Islamic extremism that has been left unchecked by indifferent Arab rulers. Yet could you ever imagine Bustros upbraiding Muslim leaders for taking “recourse to the Koran to wrongly justify injustices.”

THE DWINDLING Christian flocks of the Middle East are increasingly paralyzed by fear and a sense of abandonment, as their shepherds refuse to name the real menace to their congregants and Western leaders neglect their desperate cries. On an official visit to Indonesia in the wake of the Baghdad church bloodbath, even US President Barack Obama was undeterred from his consoling message that “Islam is a religion of peace...The United States will never be at war with Islam.”
Middle East Christians do not expect a modern-day Baldwin to come riding in at the head of an army of deliverance. But they are looking for some honest acknowledgement of their suffering and its true inflictors, as well as some measure of hope to sustain them if they choose to stay. Perhaps a concerted dose of Western diplomacy on their behalf would help stop the bleeding.
The writer is media director for the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem.