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Analysis: An exodus of Christians from Iraq

But then again everyone suffers from Al Qaeda, and just about everyone would leave if they could.

WASHINGTON — A steady exodus of Christians from the Middle East and — most dramatically — from Iraq since the October slaughter of 57 churchgoers in Baghdad, has a long and layered history.

The diminishing Christian presence in the land where the faith began some 2,000 years ago is an issue about which anyone — of any faith, or of no faith — who is concerned about the future of the Middle East, should care deeply.

But when it comes out of a simple, emotional response by a Christian West wanting to defend a Christian minority in the East during Christmas time, it leads down a dangerous road in history. It’s a perilous path that sets out from the Crusades, when England and France marched off to save the Holy Land and its Christians from Muslim conquest, and one littered with moral hazards and potential for even greater violence.

The whole message of the New Testament would be to care about all who are suffering in war-torn Iraq, not just Christians. And there are lots of people suffering in Iraq.

So the starting point to understanding the lessons of the recent Iraqi Christian exodus is to not allow the religious extremists — neither Muslim nor Christian nor any other faith — to exploit the attacks and present them out of context as a “clash of civilizations,” that self-fulfilling prophecy coined by the late Harvard University historian, Samuel Huntington.

A glimpse of the writing on the wall can be seen along the back alleys in the Iraqi Christian neighborhoods of Baghdad and Mosul. That’s where a militant fringe has for years been scribbling anti-Christian hatred in the form of graffiti.

A particularly ominous anti-Christian bit of graffiti, which I first saw spray-painted on walls at least 12 years ago in Egypt when Islamic fundamentalists were targeting Coptic Christians, has reportedly resurfaced in Iraq in recent months. The translation from the Arabic slogan is this: “First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people.”

The phrase is an overt threat intended to say that Muslims, who worship on Friday, have already pushed many Jews, who worship on Saturday, out of the Middle East and that now they will do the same to the Christians.

Long before Sept. 11 and the “War on Terror,” it often felt like Selma, Ala. circa 1960 in many Christian minority communities of the Middle East.

This climate of threat and intimidation and sometimes violence has been boiling to the surface in places around the world where the Muslim majority collides with a Christian minority, such as Egypt, Pakistan, Sudan, Iran, Nigeria and elsewhere.

But nowhere is a palpable sense of fear and a Christian exodus from the Middle East more dramatic right now than Iraq, where analysts estimate that fully half of the country’s Christians have left since 2003.

It was Oct. 31, a Sunday, at the Syrian Catholic Church of Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad that the climate of fear was made horrifyingly real and where it became clear that Al Qaeda-inspired elements were going to go right to the third rail of the Western influence in the Middle East by targeting indigenous Christians — trying to break the 2,000-year continuum of a living Christian presence in Iraq.

It was at the very end of an All Saints Day mass, when eight heavily armed men, purportedly inspired by Al Qaeda, invaded the church in the heart of Baghdad just as Wassim Sabih, the priest, was about to conclude the service with the words, “The Mass has ended, go in peace.”

According to published reports based on eyewitness accounts, Sabih never got the words out as the militants opened fire. They pointed their weapons at him and silenced him as he began pleading for the release of his parishioners.

They took the parishioners hostage and demanded the release of two Muslim women who were supposedly held by Egyptian Coptic Christians. Iraqi Security Forces responded and in the wild gun battle that ensued, grenades were thrown by the militants, and in the end of that Sunday’s mass, 57 people were dead, including two priests.

A group calling itself The Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the attack. Believed to be an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the group issued a bulletin, saying, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers are legitimate targets.” And that they will kill Christians “wherever they can reach them.”

In the historical comparison of Selma, the Ku Klux Klan, which in this context would be Al Qaeda, has always been menacing, but now it is on the rise and openly attacking churches.

It is attempting to stoke the emotional fury of a Christian West to defend the indigenous Christians, and draw it deeper into a fight, to draw us into an understanding that this is indeed a “clash of civilizations.”

That is precisely how Al Qaeda sees this historical moment. And it is precisely why it’s wise for the United States and the West to avoid seeing it that way. Al Qaeda is a tiny criminal, terrorist organization with a warped, 12th-century ideology.

It is not a civilization.