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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.

Drew Christiansen, editor of "America," a national Catholic weekly magazine published by Jesuits, said that too often there is an overreaction or selective reaction to these attacks, and too little done by U.S. policymakers.

“What is often unnoticed in the Middle East is the devastating effect of U.S. policy on Christians in the region,” he said. “U.S. policymakers have never taken the plight of Christians seriously, whether in Iraq or in Lebanon. There may be protests of specific violations, but not in those areas where the U.S. or Israelis have other strategic interests. For all the communication with U.S. government over the past 20 years, I have seen no serious action from any administration to improve protection for Christians. Religious freedom is basically a reporting matter and no more.”

Predictably, there are often shrill responses to these kinds of attacks on churches, particularly from the Christian right and at times from right-wing Jewish groups that see peril in the whole message of Islam and are quick to see these attacks as evidence of that.

Here's an example. I recently sat with John Eibner, head of something called Christian Solidarity International, which is a Washington-based advocacy group focusing on the persecution of Christians around the world, said on the Christians in Iraq, "Only the U.S. can save them and if we don't, the U.S. will be responsible for what amounts to genocide."

"The human rights community doesn't want to touch this because it is not politically correct," he said.

There's a kernal of truth in that and no reason to doubt Eibner is well intentioned, but overreacting to events in the Middle East can often conflate the problems and calling the violence and intimidation a "genocide" is ridiculous.

Prince Turki Al Faisal, the longtime head of Saudi intelligence and the former ambassador to Washington, was in the United States in November and participated in an interfaith dialogue with Christian groups. In an interview with GlobalPost, he referred to the attacks in Iraq, saying, “It’s Al Qaeda being Al Qaeda. They are making a concerted strategy knowing it would cause a reaction and an overreaction in the West. They absolutely know what they are doing … We have to be careful not to let them succeed by overreacting.”

The truth is just about everyone lives in fear in Iraq, and just about everyone has suffered violence. Many religious and ethnic groups have been targeted in much larger numbers in the violence and chaos that followed the 2003 invasion.

Just two days after the church attack, a spate of bombs in Sunni and Shia neighborhoods killed 68 people and wounded hundreds. An article in Monday’s editions of The New York Times provides an important piece of context to focus on: While Iraqi Christians represent only 3 percent of the population, they account for 20 percent of the Iraqis who have emigrated abroad.

That’s largely because they have the connections to Western churches and family members who are already abroad in places like Detroit, Toronto, Los Angeles and elsewhere and therefore have a better chance of getting out.

More than half of the Iraqi Christian community, estimated to be 800,000 prior to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, have left, according to the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute.

But the threat to Christians and the violence they are suffering is just as bad as the threat to Shia or Sunni Muslims, who are also trying to be part of a new Iraq — one where violence is beginning to subside and where the governing crisis is finally settling down. Those Iraqis care about their Christian neighbors and friends and know the important role they play in Iraq moving forward. Those are the Iraqis who don’t want the Christians to flee.

In 2006, I had a chance to actually ask Samuel Huntington about his 1996 book, "The Clash of Civilizations," and about whether it’s central premise might actually be self-fulfilling, particularly in the wake of Sept. 11. He often felt that his scholarship was taken out of context, he said, and he confided that he wished he had titled it differently, perhaps “Clashes of Civilizations” or something not to allow people to so easily misinterpret his work.

Huntington passed away, but we have a chance to not allow people to misinterpret history or the events unfolding around us, and that’s how best to ponder the suffering of Christians — and everyone else — in Iraq.