October 13, 2008
Last Safe Haven for Iraqi Christians Taken by Al-Qaeda
“Now the last safe haven for Christians is gone,” said Canon Andrew White, the vicar of St. George’s church in Baghdad. During the past week, twelve Christians have been killed and more than 3,000 have left the city of Mosul, once considered a safe zone for persecuted Iraqi Christians.
Mosul, on the plain of Nineveh in northern Iraq, has long been home to one of the largest remaining Christian communities in the nation. Furthermore, in recent years the city has been a destination for persecuted Christians.
Unfortunately, the safety of Mosul was only relative to the rest of Iraq, where Christians are in constant danger from Islamic extremists (including al-Qaeda). In February, in the most well publicized incident of anti-Christian persecution, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul was kidnapped and killed. Still in possession of his cell phone, Rahho told his community not to pay the ransom being demanded for his return.
His Excellency Shlemon Wirduni, the auxiliary bishop of the Chaldean patriarch, received reports from Mosul that the assassins said they were murdering Iraqi Christians who “want an autonomous region.” I recently reported on the effort of Chaldean bishops in the United States to lobby the Bush administration to support the creation of an autonomous area in the Nineveh Province to be administered by Christians.
The violence should not have been unexpected when CNN reported that, a week ago, leaflets distributed in several predominantly Christian neighborhoods contained threats that families should “either convert to Islam, or pay the jizyah, or leave the city, or face death.” Jizyah is a tax paid by non-Muslims in exchange for protection — the ransom Archbishop Rahho refused to allow to be paid for his life.
A few days later, checkpoints were set up in sections of Mosul where gunmen stopped vehicles and asked for identification papers in order to target Christians. According to one witness, some of the Christians killed were targeted in this way.
Hopes for more Christian participation in Iraqi politics were dashed recently when the Iraqi legislature voted to eliminate an article in the provincial election law guaranteeing a minimum level of Christian, and other minority, representation. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki immediately asked for the article’s reinstatement, but not before Christian protests broke out in Mosul, Baghdad, Kirkuk, and elsewhere. The attacks against Iraqi Christians in Mosul began shortly after the protests started.
Chaldean leaders in the United States are alarmed by the increasing level of violence against Iraqi Christians in spite of both Iraqi and U.S. government promises to provide greater protection. Joseph T. Kassab is executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America. Kassab asks, “Why are these innocent people getting murdered and pushed out from their homes? They always insisted on being loyal Iraqis first. The capitals of the world open their doors to them, but most choose to stay.”
It is estimated that about half of Iraq’s 900,000 Christians have now left the country, leaving the remainder vulnerable to daily harassment, persecution, and violence. Kassab wonders why the situation keeps growing worse: “We appeal to the world leaders and the international community to save innocent lives, to preserve security, and to allow the displaced families to live in peace in their ancestral land.”
As reported by McClatchey, Governor Kashmoula said the Christian deaths stem from the failure of security operations to control the movement of al-Qaeda in the region. Said Kashmoula, “Killing the peaceful Christians is a crime, and it doesn’t pass without punishment.”
Unfortunately, the likelihood that the murderers of these twelve Iraqi Christians will ever be brought to justice is growing more remote, despite Iraqi and U.S. promises that the remaining Christian communities will receive more, rather than less, protection.