By The Times- Tribune
Trudy Rubin *
On Christmas Day 2008, I attended Mass at the Al Qaleb Al Aqdas (Sacred Heart) Church, in Baghdad. Although Christians had become targets in Iraq’s civil war and thousands had fled, the Chaldean Catholic church was filled with well-dressed families, and a choir sang near a large Christmas tree. Some worshipers continued on to a Santa Claus show in a nearby park.
Those days are long gone.
The number of Chaldeans (whose church dates to the early Christian era), and members of other ancient Iraqi Christian sects, has plummeted in recent years amid repeated attacks by Shiite and Sunni Islamists. But the most terrible blow came this year, when Islamic State terrorists sent 200,000 Christians fleeing from their historical heartland in northern Iraq, including Mosul, leaving it empty of Christians for the first time in 1,600 years.
“As I speak, the process of the eradication of Christians in Iraq and throughout the Middle East continues,” the Detroit-based Chaldean Bishop Francis Kalabat told a Senate hearing this month. Ten years ago, he said, there were more than 350 churches in Iraq, but today there are fewer than 40. The Christian population has dropped from more than a million to fewer than 400,000, many of them internal refugees.
“The United States has a unique role and obligation in this conflict,” Kalabat added, “because the plight of Christians in Iraq today is a direct result of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
The bishop, who serves 175,000 Chaldean Catholics in North America, explained: “The poorly planned and executed goal of regime change and the more recent withdrawal of U.S. troops left in its wake a weakened and decentralized national government, sectarian warfare, and the practice of government by tribes or by gang.” This lack of unity, he added, left a dangerous void filled by the Islamic State.
With few exceptions, the Middle East’s Christian communities have looked to Arab dictators or monarchs to protect them, including Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and the generals who led Egypt before the Tahrir Square revolution and are now leading it again.
Some Christians hoped that new Arab democracies might usher in an era of pluralism. Instead, the 2011 revolts sparked sectarian wars in which Christians were targeted.
The one place in Iraq that has offered Christian refugees shelter, and is now hosting about 200,000 of them, is Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in the north. Its non-Arab Muslim population suffered greatly under Saddam and now welcomes other persecuted minorities. The Kurds are drowning under the burden of hundreds of thousands of members of minority groups who are fleeing the Islamic State. They include not just Christians, but Yazidis and others.
In the long term, can Christians ever return to their Iraqi heartland? Do Arab Christians, whose roots in the region precede the Muslim conquest, have a future in the region? And what will the United States and Europe do to help the Kurds give them permanent shelter or to absorb those who want to make their homes in the West?
Finding an answer to the last question is urgent. Although church groups are helping refugees, many are living in tents in the midst of a cold, wet winter. Their children aren’t being educated.
Yet refugees doubt they can return to their cities because their Sunni neighbors betrayed them to the Islamic State. The bishop doubts that most will go back unless they are guaranteed protection by some international force, which is unlikely.
The Islamic State is destroying churches, shrines, and ancient manuscripts. And while the central Iraqi government says it supports Christians, it is providing no help to the refugees. Kalabat wants Western governments to pressure Baghdad to provide more help and to funnel aid directly to Christian organizations or Kurdish officials.
But in this Christmas season, the long-term plight of Christians in the region requires serious thought by Western governments. It is clear that much of the Arab Muslim world is becoming ever less tolerant of minorities. It’s time for Western governments that contributed to the problem to consider taking in more refugees.
* Columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.