The Persecution of Christians in Iraq

From AsiaNews.it and the Italian journalist Sandro Magister, a roundup of reporting on the persecution and martyrdom of Christians in Iraq:

  • Benedict XVI: Fr. Ragheed, a “costly sacrifice” so that Iraq may see the dawn of reconciliation June 6, 2007. AsiaNews.it.:

    “Without Sunday, without the Eucharist the Christians in Iraq cannot survive”: that was how Fr Ragheed spoke of his community’s hope, a community that was used to facing death on a daily basis, that same death that yesterday afternoon faced him, on his way home from saying mass. After having fed his faithful with the Body and Blood of Christ, he gave his own blood, his own life for Iraq, for the future of his Church. This young priest had willingly, knowingly chosen to remain by the side of his parishioners from Holy Spirit parish in Mosul, judged the most dangerous, after Baghdad. His reasoning was simple: without him, without its pastor, his flock would have been lost. In the barbarity of suicide attacks and bombings, one thing at least was clear, and gave him the strength to resist: “Christ – Ragheed would say – challenger evil with his infinite love, he keeps us united and through the Eucharist he gifts us life, which the terrorists are trying to take away”.

    He died yesterday, massacred by blind violence. Killed on his way home from Church, where his people, despite their decreasing numbers, bowed by fear and desperation, continued to come: “the young people – Ragheed told us just days ago – organized surveillance after the recent attacks against the parish, the kidnappings, the threats to religious; priests celebrate mass amidst the bombed out ruins; mothers worry as they see their children challenge danger to attend catechism with enthusiasm; the elderly come to entrust their fleeing families to God’s protection, they alone remain in their country where they have their roots and built their homes, refusing to flee. Exile for them is unimaginable”. Ragheed was one of them, a strong father figure who wanted to protect his children: “It is our duty not to give in to despair: God will listen to our prayers for peace in Iraq”:

    (More coverage of Fr. Ganni’s death — as well as his service in life — can be found at Chaldean Thoughts.

  • The Chaldean Church mourns Fr. Ragheed Ganni and his martyrs AsiaNews.it. June 4, 2007. Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly together with all of the Chaldean bishops condemn this barbarous murder of the priest and his three deacons, massacred yesterday in Mosul after Sunday Mass: “A horrible crime against God and humanity , may these martyrs find eternal rest”. This afternoon the funerals will be held in Karamles. New information comes to light surrounding the murders.
  • A Final Appeal: Save Christian Iraq by Sandro Magister. http://www.Chiesa. May 28, 2007. It is the only country where the liturgy is still celebrated in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. But Christianity is in danger of dying out there. Killings, aggression, kidnappings. And now also the “jiza,” the tax historically imposed by Muslims on their “infidel” subjects, those who have still not fled the country.
  • Patriarch Delly: World has forgotten Iraqi Christians AsiaNews.it. October 16, 2006. In the aftermath of the murder of the priest Paulos Eskandar, the Chaldean patriarch denounced the indifference of the international community which, coupled with persecution, threatens to “empty” the Middle East of its Christian communities.
  • Terrorists sack and occupy a convent in Baghdad June 1, 2007. Terrorists, believed to be Shiites, yesterday occupied the Convent belonging to the Chaldean Sisters of the Scared Heart in Baghdad.
  • Baghdad, the Mahdi army imposes the veil on Christian women May 30, 2007:

    Baghdad – “Extremist Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq are at war over everything, but united by one common denominator: the persecution of Christians”. So say the faithful of Baghdad. A letter is circulating the capital, warning Christian women to wear the veil in accordance with domestic segregation. The letter is signed by the Mahdi army, linked to Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric, who the US considers the greatest threat to security in the country. Upon till now the Sunni group of “the Islamic State in Iraq” was the most violent threat to the Christian community: from their imposition of the jizya – the “compensation” demanded by the Koran from non Muslim subjects – to their expropriation of property and forced conversions to Islam.

  • Iraqi government offers its “full support” to the persecuted Christians of Baghdad AsiaNews.it. May 24, 2007:

    The Iraqi government has expressed its solidarity to the Christians of Baghdad and has pledged to protect them. In a statement in English reported yesterday by the AINA news agency, a spokesman for the Iraqi government said that the “Iraqi Cabinet addressed the issue of threats and expulsions of Christian families in Baghdad by terrorist groups. The Cabinet expressed its full support to provide all necessary assistance needed to protect them, and provide any assistance to face this threat that is rejected by our orthodox Islamic religion and the forgiving Iraqi society, between all of its components—especially the relationship with our Christians brothers.”

Iraqi Christians under Saddam

Chaldean Christians lived by and large on friendly terms with the regime of Saddam Hussein and — despite occasional attacks by Islamisists — enjoyed relative peace and security. In fact, the Catholic News Service reports that some Iraqi Christians say it was better under Saddam (Catholic News Service, February 28, 2007):

Saddam Hussein’s regime — no matter how cruel and despotic — kept the lid on any sectarian violence, said one Iraqi Catholic refugee in Jordan, who asked that his name not be used. He said Saddam, a secular leader, was especially good for Christians, as long as they stayed out of the way.

“Saddam (controlled) everything. Nobody could say anything bad especially (about) us Christians,” he said. “Christians in the Middle East are very good people. We are peace-loving people.”

Another refugee said that after years of living in fear and daily bombings many Iraqi Christians felt they were actually safer with Saddam.

“We are getting tired. When Saddam was in power there was no fighting. Saddam loved the Christians. We were safer with Saddam; now we just leave the country,” he said.

In November 27, 2002, Sandro Magister reported on a dossier on the Chaldean Church compiled by Fides, a news agency of the Vatica´s De Propaganda Fide office:

The dossier gives a positive image of Christians in [Iraq]. Yes, there is the threat of war, the lack of food and medicine, the plague of emigration. In addition, “from time to time, incidents take place, especially since the gradual spread of a fundamentalist current in the Arab world.”

But on the other hand, Catholics in Iraq “don´t undergo discrimination” and enjoy “religious freedom,” even if it´s “within the limits set by the state.”

And what about Saddam Hussein? Says Msgr. Antonios Mina, representative of the Chaldean church to the Vatican´s Congregation for Eastern Churches:

“Relations with the government are good. In the government, there is vice premier Tareq Aziz, who is a Chaldean Catholic; his wife is a strong believer. Patriarch Raphael Bidawid is highly esteemed, respected by the civil authorities.”

Nothing new to this point. On the contrary. On repeated occasions, Patriarch Bidawid has praised Saddam Hussein in an even stronger manner. Most recently, in an October interview with “Panorama,” he said:

“Christians here are privileged. Saddam gives us what we want, listens to us and protects us.” Regarding Islamic extremists: “They have infiltrated the veins of religious power and are trying to steer it in their direction. But the government keeps them in check. Saddam is capable; he fools them into being more open in order to uncover them. He will get them.”

However, as Sandro reported, the safety and security of Iraqi Christians under Saddam came at a great price — the “deafening silence” to the ongoing systematic, state-sponsored persecution, torture and murder of Shiite Muslims — as documented by the U.S. Department of State’s 2002 International Religious Freedom Report on Iraq and the discovery of some 200+ mass-graves following the overthrow of Hussein’s regime.

  • Iraq’s Legacy of Terror: Mass Graves USaid.gov: “Since the Saddam Hussein regime was overthrown in May, 270 mass graves have been reported. By mid-January, 2004, the number of confirmed sites climbed to fifty-three. Some graves hold a few dozen bodies—their arms lashed together and the bullet holes in the backs of skulls testimony to their execution. Other graves go on for hundreds of meters, densely packed with thousands of bodies. . . .”
  • Computer expert follows Saddam’s genocide July 27, 2007. “Set in a dingy underground bunker in Baghdad’s super-secure ‘Green Zone’, the office of Human Rights and Transitional Justice does not look like the incident room of the world’s biggest mass murder probe. . . .”
  • Iraqis Commemorate Discovery of Mass Graves – On May 15, 2007, the Iraqi people paused for a moment of silence in in observance of ‘Mass Graves Day’:

    According to the Iraqi government’s High Committee on Mass Graves, the mass graves were “an evitable result of the former regime’s policy against the Iraqi people throughout three decades, reaching a peak in the period from 1979-2003, when former President Saddam Hussein monopolized authority.”

    A blindfolded human skull lies on the ground at the site of a mass grave discovered at an area 20 Km south of the holy city of Karbala, central Iraq, 16 December 2006.
    The committee further explained that following a series of mass killings in 1979 that coincided with Saddam’s seizure of power and targeted certain religious and secular figures, the former president issued retroactive Decree No. 461 of the year 1980, ordering the killing of everyone who belonged to the Shiite Daawa Islamic Party or propagated its policies. Thousands of Iraqis were killed and buried in unmarked mass graves.

    According to the website of the committee, the former Iraqi regime detained a large number of Kurds, who are loyal to current Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Massoud al-Barazani, liquidated and buried them in southern and central Euphrates provinces in the early 1980s.

    One of the gravest crimes committed by Saddam’s regime was the chemical bombardment of Kurdistan’s city of Halbaja on March 16, 1988, leading to the deaths of 5,000 people, mostly women and children. In the same year, the then government conducted a series of campaigns against Kurds in what is known as the Anfal Campaign. Nearly 182,000 Kurds were killed and buried in several mass graves all over Iraq, the website said.

    In 1991, around 350,000 Iraqis were also believed to have been massacred following an uprising staged by Iraqis against the then government.

* * *

As Gerald Augustinus (Where’s the Outrage?”) and Amy Welborn (Where’s the Coverage? Open Book June 7, 2007) note, there is a dearth of attention given to Christian persecution in Iraq by the mainstream media outlets. The plight of Iraqi Chrisians merits greater attention and recognition — from American Christians, from the U.S. media, and from the Bush administration as well.

However, I’m likewise wary of an inclination (among some critics of the Iraq war) to contrast treatment of Iraqi Christians in pre and post-war Iraq as an indictment upon U.S. foreign policy in Iraq. The assertion that “things were better under Saddam” begs the question: better for Christians, yes, but at what cost? — It is often the case that vehement criticism of the conditions in postwar Iraq comes with little if any recognition of the horror that occurred before.

The Iraqi Ambassador to the Holy See, Assyrian Albert Yelda, addressed the tension between Iraqi Christians and Muslims in an interview with AsiaNews.it:

. . . the priority is to “regain stability, guarantee security for the entire population and keep the country united, not create barriers”. “Now is not the time to speak of safe haven for Christians, an idea which I do not support at all” he underlined. “Christians must remain in their homeland and the government is doing all it can to guarantee their security not only in Baghdad, but also in those areas where terrorism has so far not taken over”.

Only “by remaining united, Christians, Muslims, Turkmen, Kurds and Yezidi will web e able to uproot this evil from Iraq and the entire region”. Ambassador Yelda underscored that “the issue of terrorism is a global problem; this is why the international community must provide the Iraqi government with the necessary means to quash this ideology of evil which they are attempting to impose on us”.

“External elements – he added – are trying their very best to divide the government and the people; this is why the world cannot, must not abandon us. The International Community must remain by our side, because if there is no peace in Iraq, then there cannot be peace in the rest of the region”.

Background

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