On Christmas Day in 2008, I attended early morning Mass at the Al Qaleb Al Aqdas (Sacred Heart) Church, in the Karrada district of Baghdad. Although Christians had already become targets in Iraq’s civil war and thousands had fled, the Chaldean Catholic church was filled with well-dressed families, and a choir sang near a large Christmas tree. Some worshipers continued on to a Santa Claus show in a nearby park.
Those days are long gone.
The number of Chaldeans (whose church dates to the early Christian era) and members of other ancient Iraqi Christian sects has plummeted in recent years amid repeated attacks by Shiite and Sunni Islamists. But the most terrible blow came this year, when Islamic State terrorists sent 200,000 Christians fleeing from their historical heartland in northern Iraq, including the city of Mosul, leaving it empty of Christians for the first time in 1,600 years.
“As I speak, the process of the eradication of Christians in Iraq and throughout the Middle East continues,” the Detroit-based Chaldean Bishop Francis Kalabat told a Senate hearing this month. Ten years ago, he said, there were more than 350 churches in Iraq, but today there are fewer than 40. Many were bombed and destroyed, especially in the historically Christian villages of the north. Community leaders estimate that the Christian population has dropped from more than a million to fewer than 400,000, many of them internal refugees.
Kalabat added in a stunning indictment: “The United States has a unique role and obligation in this conflict … because the plight of Christians in Iraq today is a direct result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
What did Kalabat mean? The bishop, who serves 175,000 Chaldean Catholics in North America, explained: “The poorly planned and executed goal of regime change and the more recent withdrawal of U.S. troops left in its wake a weakened and decentralized national government, sectarian warfare, and the practice of government by tribes or … by gang.” This lack of national unity, he added, left a dangerous void filled “hopefully only temporarily” by the Islamic State.
What the bishop didn’t say is that with few exceptions, the Middle East’s Christian communities have looked to Arab dictators or monarchs to protect them, including Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the generals who led Egypt before the Tahrir Square revolution and are now leading it again.
Some Christians hoped that the advent of new Arab democracies might usher in an era of pluralism in which they would be welcome. Instead, the 2011 revolts sparked sectarian wars in Iraq and Syria in which Christians were targets.
The one place in Iraq that has offered Christian refugees shelter, and is now host for 200,000 of them, is Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in the north. Its non-Arab, Muslim population suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein and now welcomes other persecuted minorities. The Kurds, however, are drowning under the burden of hundreds of thousands of members of minority groups who are fleeing the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. They include not just Christians, but Yazidis and others.
This raises several pressing questions: In the long term, can Christians ever return to their Iraqi heartland, which includes the Islamic State-occupied city of Mosul? Do Arab Christians, whose roots in the region precede the Muslim conquest, have a future in Iraq or, indeed, in the region? And if Iraq’s Christians can’t return home, what will the United States and Europe do to help the Kurds give them permanent shelter or to absorb those who want to make their homes in the West?
Kalabat’s comments and my conversations by Skype with aid workers in Erbil, Kurdistan, made it clear that finding an answer to the last question is urgent. Although church groups in Erbil and abroad are helping Christian refugees, many are living in unfinished cinder-block buildings, an unfinished mall, and tents — in the midst of a cold, wet winter. Those with money to rent apartments are running through their savings. Their children aren’t being educated because overburdened Kurdish schools can’t cope with the influx.
Yet most Christian refugees in Kurdistan doubt they can return to their cities and villages, because their Sunni Arab neighbors betrayed them to the Islamic State. “The neighbors wrote the letter N, for Nazarite, on their homes to identify them as Christians,” Kalabat said, “and told them to leave within 24 hours.” The bishop doubts that most will go back even if the Islamic State is defeated, unless they are guaranteed protection by some international force, which is unlikely.
Moreover, the Islamic State is destroying churches, shrines and ancient manuscripts to wipe out signs of Christian identity. And while the central Iraqi government says it supports Christians, it is providing no help to the refugees, says the bishop. Kalabat wants Western governments to pressure Baghdad to provide more help and to funnel international aid directly to Christian organizations or Kurdish officials.
But in this Christmas season, the long-term plight of Christians in Iraq and the region requires serious thought by Western governments. It is clear that much of the Arab Muslim world, to its detriment, is becoming ever less tolerant of minorities. So it’s time for the Western governments that contributed to the problem to consider taking in more Christian refugees.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.