Analysis: An exodus of Christians from Iraq

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.

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.