October 5, 2007


Demise of Iraq’s Christians

A major unintended consequence of the war in Iraq is the demise of Christians there.

More than 4 million Iraqis have been displaced from their homes, either fleeing the country or moving to areas controlled by the Kurds. More than a third of them are Christians, most of them Chaldean Catholics. Those who pushed so hard for us to invade Iraq had no idea that the extinction of Christians in Iraq would be one of the results.

Pope John Paul II was one who did foresee that. He said on March 16, 2003, “In the face of the tremendous consequences that an international military operation would have for the population of Iraq and the balance of the entire Middle East, already sorely tried, as well as for the extremism that could ensue, I say to all: There is still time to negotiate; there is still room for peace; it is never too late to come to an understanding and to continue discussions.” Of course, governments on both sides didn’t listen.

In 1990, according to the United Nations, 5 percent of Iraq’s 19 million people, or 950,000 people, identified themselves as Christian. Today, according to estimates from the United Nations and the Holy See, no more than 300,000 remain.

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) supports Eastern Churches throughout the Middle East. Since most of the Chaldean Catholic refugees have gone to Syria and Jordan, the CNEWA is doing what it can to provide them with food, temporary housing, medical care and schooling.

The Middle East is home to many religions that have historically lived together in peace. But now the mess in Iraq has opened the door to extremists with sectarian ideas and Christians have been one of their prime targets. While Muslim Sunni extremists are fighting Shiite militiamen, both are persecuting the Christians because they see Iraqi Christians as collaborators with what they consider the Christian West.

CNEWA publishes the bimonthly magazine One. Steven Garmo, an attorney who advises the Chaldean Federation of America, told the magazine, “There is a movement to annihilate Iraq’s Christians, and it’s working. Churches are being bombed. Our people are being harassed. They’re forced to convert to Islam so they can feed their families.”

Chaldean Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni was pastor of a parish in Mosul. After celebrating the Eucharist on Sunday, June 3, he left the church accompanied by three subdeacons. Suddenly their car was overtaken. Militants sprayed the car with bullets, killing the priest and the subdeacons.

“Iraqi Christians have no protection,” Garmo said. “Iraq’s Muslim Arabs and Kurds, Shiites or Sunnis, have tribal protection. If one person in the family is killed, family members avenge that killing. Muslim insurgents in Iraq know this. The bottom line is that we’re going to become extinct.”

Jordan and Syria, which previously had welcomed the refugees, have tightened up their policies, especially after Iraqi terrorists bombed three hotels in Amman in 2005. Jordan now rejects all males between 17 and 35 so three-fourths of Iraqi refugees there are women and children. When their money runs out, they often are drawn into prostitution. Syria requires visas and refuses to give refugees permits to work legally.

The United States has severely limited Iraqi immigrants because of security reasons. It’s impossible for an Iraqi to come into the United States without waiting a year or two for the necessary security check. According to the State Department, only 68 Iraqis were admitted into the country between October 2006 and March 2007, and only 900 since the invasion in 2003. Many Iraqi Christians seeking asylum in the United States with little success once worked as translators for the U.S. military or for firms contracted by the U.S. government to rebuild Iraq.

Many Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria are finding ways to send families to Europe, Australia or New Zealand. This year, up to 40,000 people are expected to join their families in Sweden.

What is to be done for Iraq’s refugees?

Archbishop Silvano M. Tomasi, the Holy See’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, has said, “It is urgent for the international community to take up its responsibility and share in the task of protection and assistance.”

—John F. Fink

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