The Suffering of Iraqi Christians

| |

No one knows for sure how many Christians remain in Iraq.

Certainly their numbers continue to rapidly decline, mostly through forced migration. In 2001, Christian population estimates ranged from 1.8 to 2.8 million. Now, those estimates have shrunk to 700,000 to 1.2 million.

There is no doubt that at least 40 percent of Iraqi Christians have left the country during the past six years. The population decline was taking place before the current war began in 2003, but at a much slower pace and for different reasons, most of which came down to economics. Many Iraqis were severely hurt by 12 years of U.N. sanctions imposed on the country.

The much higher rate of immigration by Iraqi Christians in recent years has been caused by the loss of law and order in the country. Saddam Hussein’s ruthless regime didn’t discriminate. Saddam ruled the country with an iron fist, which meant a lack of political freedom for everyone.

Yet his regime provided a high level of security. Baghdad was one of safest major cities on earth. Criminals were kept off the streets, and religious discrimination did not exist. Anything that smelled “fanatical” or religiously divisive was put down decisively.

Saddam’s ruling Baath Party was deeply rooted in secularism. It had zero tolerance for the use of religion for political ends and kept both Sunni and Shiite Muslim extremists on the run.

The Christian minority, on the other hand, was viewed more favorably; they tended to shy away from politics and lead active lives in civilian spheres such as business, health care, and education. They received more than their fair share of civil servant appointments in government departments—often because they were viewed as trustworthy and hard-working. And Saddam seemed to have personally made sure that churches and Christian neighborhoods were well provided for in the infrastructure of the country.

The Collapse of Law and Order

It is noteworthy that as soon as law and order in the country collapsed with the arrival of the foreign occupation forces, exiled Shiite and Sunni religious-based political parties quickly took control of the streets. (Many of their followers hadn’t dared to make noise as long as the Baathists were in power.) Their leaders brought well-armed militias from across the borders of neighboring Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, and Syria.

Initially, most of these Islamic militias allied themselves with the foreign occupation authorities, helping to dismantle the Baath political and military structure and to capture or kill many of its leaders. Rapidly-armed Shiite parties gained the upper hand, with tacit support from foreign authorities. They quickly controlled most of the predominantly Shiite southern half of the country and took over more and more of the historically Sunni-controlled capital, Baghdad. And they enjoyed the generous support of Shiite-ruled Iran.

In reaction, Sunni militias organized more zealously. With the financial support of Sunni Arab countries, they led a bloody rebellion against both the foreign occupation and the Shiite ascendancy to power.

Iraqi Christians became the target of both Sunni and Shiite extremists. They were viewed as sympathizers with the fallen secularist regime.

As resistance to the foreign occupation intensified, occupation forces focused attention on protecting themselves, fortifying an enclave in Baghdad called “the Green Zone,” as well as several other military bases. A new Shiite-controlled Iraqi authority was established in that enclave, leaving other areas far more vulnerable.

Most Christians abandoned their homes and businesses in their small communities in Basra and in the Shiite-controlled neighborhoods of Baghdad before much physical harm came their way.

 Sunni militias have had more opportunity to inflict suffering on the Christian communities—mostly because they controlled the northern city of Mosul and areas of Baghdad where the concentration of Christians was highest. (Sunni Islam has historically tended to be much harsher than Shiite Islam in its treatment of Christian minorities.)

Grave choices

Over the past 50 to 100 years, the growing Shiite Muslim population of south and east Iraq has edged Sunni Muslims north and west. Sunnis view themselves as the main losers to Western occupation forces, who empowered their Shiite enemies.

Sunnis generally shared Saddam’s strong support for an independent Palestinian homeland—a rallying cause for most Muslims. And the foreign occupation is identified as Western “Christian,” intent on undermining Islam and supporting Israel’s “grab” of Arab land. Thus, already viewed as a privileged group under the previous regime, Christians have been increasingly resented.

Shiite areas are mostly secure against Sunni extremist bombing attacks. Shiites control the central government and most of the generous oil revenues. The very few Christians remaining in their areas have the means to pay protection money to local militias.

Not so for Christians in predominantly Sunni areas. Whatever means they had to pay for the protection of their churches and families has been depleted. They’ve been told to make one of three choices: convert to Islam, surrender themselves and their resources, or leave the country.

Many have been held by Sunni and Shiite militia for ransom. Some were killed even after the money was paid. Several Christian young women disappeared and are believed to have been forced to marry Sunni militia leaders. Other Christians escaped to Syria, Jordan, or Turkey, where most seek refugee status in the West. Families with no resources for protection money or travel abroad often smuggle their sons and daughters to the remaining Christian villages in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Finally, some have converted to Islam, subjecting themselves and their loved ones to intensive indoctrination.

As foreign troops vacate the cities and move to fortified military barracks, attacks against Christian churches have intensified. On one Sunday, eight churches in northern Baghdad were simultaneously bombed by Sunni extremists. At least 14 men, women, and children died, and scores more were seriously injured.

Although the central government moved in quickly with more police protection for church buildings, Iraqi Christian families still live in a constant state of fear, as even the police force is infiltrated by religious extremists.

Reformed Churches and Ministries

Meanwhile, the Reformed congregation in Basra has dwindled to a handful of elderly people. All the younger ones have left.

The Reformed congregation in Mosul dispersed. Its building was closed by order of Muslim extremists who kidnapped and killed its senior elder. The Assyrian-speaking congregation in Baghdad also closed down.

The large Arabic congregation in Baghdad has dwindled significantly, but it remains active with important ministries to children and neighborhood families.

The congregation in Kirkuk, where security seems better, continues with different services. Both the Baghdad and Kirkuk congregations have active Bible study and diaconal ministries regularly supported by the Middle East Reformed Fellowship (see box).

A glimmer of hope can also be found in responses to Arabic gospel radio broadcasts, which show growing disenchantment with fanatical Islam within both Sunni and Shiite communities.

As we mark the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church Nov. 8, please pray for our brothers and sisters in Iraq. Pray especially for believers in Somalia as well, several of whom were recently executed by Muslim extremists.  


What Is MERF?

The Middle East Reformed Fellowship is a Christian, nonprofit, and nonpolitical charitable organization. It serves the Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the Horn of Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Iran, Indonesia, and Pakistan. It emphasizes an indigenous outreach that focuses on building up and aiding local churches, using radio as a key evangelistic tool. In conjunction with Words of Hope and Back to God Ministries International, MERF broadcasts radio programs in Arabic to reach a potential audience of more than 340 million people. MERF has also established training and broadcasting centers for indigenous workers in Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, and Indonesia. For more information, see www.MERF.org or e-mail merf@merf.org.


About the Author

Rev. Victor Atallah is founder and general director of the Middle East Reformed Fellowship and Arabic broadcast team leader of a joint effort by Words of Hope, Back to God Ministries International, and MERF. Lisa Atallah, who is married to Victor, has been a volunteer with MERF for 25 years. At present she serves as MERF’s office administrator.
X