Under Siege: Iraq’s Christians

Once the core of Iraq’s middle class, Christians are fleeing their imploding homeland for lives as exiles

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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 region, 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. — John Paul II, Angelus address, 16 March 2003

As Iraq implodes, Christendom is witnessing the demise of one of its oldest churches. Not since the World War I era — the last major Western incursion into the Middle East before the present — has a Middle Eastern Christian community battled extinction.

In the waning days of World War I, as the British and French poised their troops to carve up the Ottoman Empire, Kurdish and Turkish nationalists accused their Christian minorities of complicity and treason. Up to two million Armenian, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syriac Christians died: Hundreds of thousands were murdered; others died of starvation, disease and exposure to the elements as entire villages were uprooted and deported.

Those lucky enough to survive found refuge in the Middle East’s burgeoning cities: Armenians in Beirut and Damascus; Assyrians, Chaldeans and Syriac Christians in Baghdad and Mosul. While Beirut and Damascus are not exploding, Mosul simmers and Baghdad is aflame. Those Christians who once found protection in Baghdad’s ancient center — and prospered — are now fleeing to Jordan and Syria, from which they hope to settle permanently in Europe, North America and Oceania.

“History is repeating itself,” said “Aunt” Shimuni, a centenarian who as a child survived the slaughter of Christians and now lives in exile in Amman. “What is happening in today’s Iraq is the same as what happened to us 90 years ago. And again the rest of the world has shut its eyes.”

In many cases, gathering statistics on anything connected to the Middle East is as futile as counting soap suds in a bubble bath. Many of the countries do not even conduct a census. Thus, when well-informed observers cite statistics as definitive, typically they speak in conservative generalizations. In April, at an international conference in Geneva called by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N. agency confirmed what Pope John Paul II had said days before the war: The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has unleashed militant, sectarian strife there, devastating Iraq and its neighbors.

Up to 15 percent of Iraq’s 27.5 million people have been uprooted — the equivalent of 45 million people in the United States, 12.4 million in Germany or five million in Canada.

Of the two million Iraqis who have fled abroad, most have settled in neighboring Jordan and Syria, while others have found refuge in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. UNHCR also reported that up to two million Iraqis have sought refuge in less violent regions of their fractured homeland, particularly in the northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, which borders Syria, Turkey and Iran.

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Tags: Iraq Refugees Iraqi Christians Relief Chaldean Church