One of the unintended but first victims of America's rush to war in Iraq has been its Christian communities. From the first-reported civilian casualty (a young Christian boy) in the US Air Force bombings of Baghdad before the invasion, to the recent bombing on a Sunday morning of five Christian churches by Muslim extremists, Iraqi Christianity has been exposed to new dangers unknown during the long, even if brutal, reign of Saddam Hussein.
Among the oldest Christian communities in the world, the official language of worship of the Chaldean Church (to which most Iraqi Christians belong) remains Aramaic, a variant of the language spoken by Jesus. Even though they were always small in numbers, squeezed between the Byzantine Empire on one side and the Persian Empire on the other, Iraqi Christians still managed to send missionaries as far as western China about eight hundred years before European Christians did. Until recently, when so many have fled elsewhere, Chaldean Catholics numbered over a million in Iraq, and, along with the Syrian Orthodox and Armenian and Greek Catholics (and even a few thousand Protestants), were protected by the secular Baathist regime from persecution by the Muslim majority. While there was some displacement of Christian families in the North (where Saddam was trying to resettle Arab families in the oil-rich Kurdish territories) the only severe restrictions on religion under the Baathists were against the Shia Muslims, who revolted against Saddam at the first President Bush's urging, hoping to unseat Saddam without the cost of American lives -- but at a deadly cost to the badly outgunned rebels.
Now, increasingly fearing the worst as Muslim extremists have begun target Christians, recent reports say that thousands of Iraqi Christian families have fled to Syria, where a similar Baathist regime, despite its dictatorial ways, insures that Christians have the freedom to practice their religion. Thousands more Iraqi Christians who are lucky enough to have relatives in the US are besieging them to intervene with our government to grant them special emergency immigrant status. They fear, quite rightly since the U.S. has agreed to Iraq now being officially declared an "Islamic Nation", that American style democracy (if it ever comes to Iraq) will almost certainly result in Sharia (Islamic Law) becoming the law of the land -- with Christians ending up as a more or less persecuted minority (less than 3%) in an Iranian style "Islamic republic".
Did the US government have any idea of what of how this was likely to play out? With all the Middle Eastern experts available to give advice, it certainly should have. The Vatican clearly tried, even sending a special envoy to Washington before the war to try to reason with the Bush administration. However, subsequent revelations have made it abundantly clear that our government long had a very different agenda in mind, one that if pursued as planned will almost guarantee (even if this result was not intended) that the last remaining Christians being forced to leave Iraq -- much as has already happened to the Christian community in the land of its origin.
Does this mean Iraqi Christians wish that Saddam was still in power? Probably not. But it does make one wonder if the American-administered cure, at least as far as Iraq's Christians are concerned, has not turned out to be far worse than the illness.
R W Kropf 9/26/04 IraqiXp.doc 04-09-26.html