As 2011 came to a close, Iraq’s Christians prayed ‘for peace, goodwill, and that they will make it until next Christmas alive.’ They know their situation is precarious.
Assyrian, or Chaldean Christians are the last ethno-religious group still using Aramaic – the language spoken by Jesus Christ and the people among whom he preached. Iraq is a country to which those Assyrians, a community that dates from the first century AD, are indigenous. Iran, where they also are experiencing increased restrictions on their religious freedom, is another ancient homeland.
On October 31, 2010, suicide bombers from the Islamic State of Iraq, a pro-al-Qaeda group, massacred 58 parishioners during a bloody siege at a Chaldean church in Baghdad. It was only the most publicized of what, by then, were numerous assaults. Every year since U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime has witnessed attacks on Assyrian and other Christian churches, schools and neighborhoods by religiously-intolerant factions within Iraq’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities.
It is ironic that defeat of a brutal dictator, in the cause of liberty and safety for Iraqis and the world, lifted constraints which held sectarian violence at bay. It is equally lamentable that Iraq’s elected government has failed to ensure freedom of belief and security of life and property for those who do not subscribe to the majority faith.
So what will 2012 bring for those Assyrians clinging to their ancestral faith in their birthplace of Iraq?
Iraq’s society has been in political, societal and religious transition since the end of Baathist rule. Battles for the religious future of Iraq have not been confined to bloodletting along the longstanding intra-Muslim schism between Shiites and Sunnis. Even as fundamentalists in those two branches of Islam have attacked each other for supremacy, they have also steadily decimated the minority Christian community.
Numbering 1.4 million prior to 2003, there are less than 500,000 of them remaining in Iraq today. So, religious struggles convulsing Iraqi society have seriously escalated the decline of one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East. If the recent past is any warning, 2012 will bring more assaults intended to reduce their numbers even further.
Shiite fundamentalism in Iran, on Iraq’s eastern border, has served as a draconian model of discrimination against Assyrians. In the words of a leading hardline Iranian ayatollah, Ahmad Jannati, Christians, like other religious minorities, are ‘sinful animals who roam the earth and engage in corruption.’ Daily discrimination in economic, educational and social settings combined with assassination of their clergymen have dwindled Iran’s Assyrians from more than 100,000 prior to 1979 to 58,000 in 1987 and less than 15,000 in recent years. Those terrible actions have inappropriately inspired Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists in Iraq.
So, unfortunately, it is in post-liberation Iraq that Assyrian Christians have been subjected to the most indiscriminate religious violence. The present Iraqi administration has exerted little effort to safeguard this community of citizens. They have been threatened, kidnapped, brutalized, raped, even tortured and killed in large numbers. Many Assyrians have no option but to flee to other parts of the Middle East and to the West after abandoning all their possessions. They now make up over 40 percent of all Iraqi refugees despite originally constituting less than 3 percent of Iraq’s population. (realclearworld Jan. 2012)