One of the more unfortunate consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been the virtual decimation of the already-small Christian community in Iraq. Christians were hardly immune from persecution under Saddam Hussein, but since they constituted less than 3 percent of the population and were not a threat to the regime, they were not often a specific target, as were Shia Muslims and Kurds. Since the 2003 invasion, however, things have gotten worse — not necessarily because of specific government policies (the current constitution offers protection on paper to religious and ethnic minorities) but because of the dynamics of post-invasion Iraq.
Saddam was nominally a secular ruler, though he invoked Allah whenever he ran into trouble or opposition. Iraq now recognizes Islam as the official state religion, and no law can be passed that contradicts its basic tenets. Despite formal protection of Christians’ basic rights, they have been targeted for attacks and many have fled their original homes, some to Kurdish regions in the north and some to countries like Iran, Syria, Jordan, even Western Europe. A New York Times story cites an estimate, for example, that 5,000 of the 100,000 Christians who once lived in Mosul still remain there.
The latest exodus, involving thousands of families fleeing Baghdad and Mosul, followed an Oct. 31 siege at a church in Baghdad that killed 51 worshippers and two priests and follow-on bombings targeting Christians. Although the attacks do not seem to be organized by the government, The U.S. Commission on International religious Freedom (appointed by the president and Congress) notes that violent incidents are seldom properly investigated, and official discrimination in employment and housing is widespread.
It may be that it will prove impossible for a Christian community to thrive in an Iraq that is officially Muslim, and that almost all Iraqi Christians will eventually flee. That would be sad; some of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world are in Iraq. It would not, however, be unprecedented. In 1948, after the establishment of the state of Israel, almost all of Iraq’s Jews fled the country.
It was hardly the intention of those who decided to invade Iraq to unleash persecution of Iraqi Christians. But all actions have unintended consequences, which should dictate prudence in the future when considering dubiously justified military action.