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Over the last week in publicity trailing the release of his autobiography, former president George W Bush admitted that when it came to Iraq he felt a “sickening feeling”. Sadly for those looking for greater remorse he was only referring to the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction. But as a man of devout Christian faith it would be interesting to discover what Bush’s thoughts are on the fact that one of the consequences of his war is that Iraq’s Christian community of 1 million pre-war has shrunk by 60% since 2003, as its members have fled abroad or been killed.
As a minority population living in a country whose mode of politics can only be described as a bloody hybrid of democracy and sectarianism, Iraq’s Christians have borne an unfair burden of recent tragedy. Their precarious position was highlighted over the past 10 days by the sentencing to death of prominent Christian and former Ace of Spades most-wanted, Tariq Aziz, and the bloody massacre of 46 worshippers in a Baghdad church near the Green Zone.
The massacre was described by al-Qaida in Iraq as a raid on “a filthy nest of the nests of polytheism, which has been long taken by the Christians of Iraq as a headquarters for a war against the religion of Islam”, and was followed by a series of statements promising the “destruction” of the community. Having been cleansed from Shia areas in the civil war and significantly depleted by fighting with the Sunni Sons of Iraq as part of the surge, al-Qaida appears to be turning its focus towards Iraq’s dwindling Christian population.
Meanwhile Iraq’s Christians continue to be discriminated against by the Iraqi state. There can be little doubt concerning the politics of revenge that swirl around the decision to execute Tariq Aziz. The judge in the court is a former aide to Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, who ran for election on Maliki’s State of Law coalition, and the decision appears to be an attempt by Maliki to shore up Shia support in his attempts to form a government. The pope spoke out against the decision with his spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, saying that the Vatican hoped the sentence would not be carried out, and that commuting the sentence would encourage reconciliation and the rebuilding of peace and justice in Iraq.
Earlier in the year the pope urged the Iraqi government to protect Iraq’s “most vulnerable religious minorities” following a spate of attacks on Iraqi Christians. Indeed as worrying as the surge of violence against Iraq’s Christians is, it should be placed in the context of the last seven years of daily grind. The organisation “Iraqi Christians in Need” (which is holding a memorial service in London on 12 November) explains that Iraq’s Christians, “as a result of the war, have been suffering, displaced, destitute and persecuted”.
In the absence of effective Christian representation in the new Iraqi government and without a militia to protect them in Iraq’s violent sectarian arena, Iraqi Christians were targeted throughout the height of Iraq’s civil war period from 2006-2007. High-ranking clergy were kidnapped and assassinated and tens of thousands fled the country. Despite making up less than 5% of Iraq’s population, they constitute an estimated 10% of internally displaced Iraqis and 20% of Iraqi refugees in neighbouring nations. Ironically enough Iraq’s Christians do benefit from more relaxed immigration rules to the west. France and Germany have previously accepted certain quotas of Iraqi Christian refugees, and the majority of Iraqi refugees admitted into the US were Christian (as of 2007).
Michael Youash of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project has warned that in the future “perhaps we’ll find no Christians in Iraq”. Of particular concern is the fate of Mosul’s 20,000 Christian population. While security in much of the country has improved, Iraq’s divided third city remains an open wound and a reminder of the country’s governing elite’s inability to agree on oil and federalism laws and the status of Iraq’s internal borders. This instability may widen the existing cracks in Iraqi society; the worry is that Iraq’s Christian population will continue to disappear in them.