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The Plight of the Iraqi Christians – An Update following the Attack on the Baghdad Church
By: Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
"The Plight of Iraqi Christians" was the title of a MEMRI document published over five years ago. The document was published during a period of intense sectarian violence that affected many sectors in Iraqi society, but, as we stressed at the time, the Christians "have been specifically targeted by Islamists, who either accuse them of collaborating with the 'invading crusading army' or label them as infidels. As Islamist pressures mounted in Iraq... Christian businesses were destroyed, Christian university students were harassed and Christian women were forced to wear the veil." In the same document, a Christian was quoted as saying: "Some of the Muslims consider us infidels. We are being targeted. They will eat us alive." His premonition has proven to be tragically accurate.
Islam's Treatment of Minorities throughout the Ages
Liberal writer Dr. 'Abd Al-Khaliq Hussein wrote about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, placing it in the broader context of Islam's treatment of minorities, particularly Christians and Jews, since the time of Muhammad.
Hussein points out that, while Arab writers frequently boast about the tolerant treatment of Christians, Jews, and Sabians in the Muslim world, the reality is actually very different. He shows that while some parts of the Koran and the Hadith advocate tolerance towards non-Muslims, others do not. For example, Koran 3:85 states that "whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers."
Dr. Hussein points out further that, throughout Arab and Islamic history, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims has not been as warm as some claim; in fact, it has often been tragic. Muhammad is recorded as saying that no two religions shall live side by side in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Second Caliph, 'Omar, ordered Christians and Jews to be treated harshly and expelled from the Arabian Peninsula. Prominent medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya, revered by today's Wahhabis, described churches as polytheist temples, and said that only mosques are houses of Allah. This historical background, says Dr. Hussein, has been exploited by the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia to persecute non-Muslims, and Al-Qaeda's description of the Baghdad church as "a corrupt den of polytheism" echoes Ibn Taymiyya's teachings.
Dr. Hussein reminds his readers that the massacre in the Baghdad church was not the first attack on Christians in Iraq, and not even the worst. He mentions the 1936 attack by the Iraqi army on the Assyrian Christians, in which at least 3,000 people were killed. He also mentions the infamous "farhoud" of 1941, a murderous attack on the Jews of Iraq in which hundreds were killed or wounded, and which eventually led to the emigration of the Iraqi Jewish community, that had predated Islam by at least 1,000 years. Dr. Hussein maintains that the terrorists, aided by Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, are seeking to empty Iraq of its Christians. 
In 2003, Christians constituted 3 percent of the Iraqi population (numbering 1.25-1.5 million). Since then, their numbers have continued to dwindle, and according to one Iraqi source, Christian clerics now estimate their number at no more than 400,000.
The Middle East Is in Danger of Losing Its Christians
Another Iraqi commentator, 'Aziz Al-Hajj, argues that the experience of the Iraqi Christians is no different from that of other Christians in the Middle East, who all suffer blunt discrimination, aggression, abuse of rights, and pressure to emigrate. He points out that since 2003, over 50 churches have been burned or destroyed in Iraq; a cardinal was kidnapped, three priests were murdered, and about 800 Christians have been killed. The emigration of Christians is driven by their realization that if they stay behind, they will at best be second-class citizens. According to Al-Hajj, the number of Palestinian Christians is dwindling too: no more than 50,000 remain in the occupied territories, only 1000 of them in Gaza. Even in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, the majority of the population is now Muslim.
The Truth about Islamophobia
Al-Hajj points to the difference between the Muslims' reaction to Islamophobia and their reaction to discrimination against non-Muslims in their own countries: When a Western politician makes an Islamophobic remark, or when a Western newspaper publishes what is viewed as offensive cartoons of the Prophet, Muslims scream blue murder. Yet very few raise their voice in defense of Christian Arabs, or call for the equal treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims minorities in Muslim lands.
The article also points out that, in covering the recent Catholic Synod of Eastern Churches, the Arab press focused on one point – the Israeli occupation – but ignored others, such the Synod's call for religious freedom and equality before the law. Al-Hajj mentions that even writers in the London-based daily Al-Hayat, which is considered liberal and fair compared to many other Arab papers, have described the deteriorating status of Middle East Christians as part of an overall problem afflicting both Muslims and Christians in the region. And some writers simply describe Christians and Muslims alike as "victims of Israel."
Al-Hajj highlights the difference between the state of religious minorities in the West and in the Arab countries. In the West, he says, Muslims practice their religion in freedom, and maintain thousands of mosques. Moreover, they are free to spread their religion, and openly celebrate each new convert. In contrast, Christians in the Muslim world are arrested for allegedly trying to spread Christianity, and a Muslim who converts to Christianity may face the death penalty. In the Gulf, Christians are forced to conduct prayers clandestinely at home, in hotels, or in the homes of diplomats, and even this entails a great risk.
The Emigration of Minorities as Reflecting the Intolerance of Middle East Societies
Writing in Al-Hayat, columnist Houssam Itani described the crimes committed against Iraq's Christians as part of a broader problem in Arab society, which is becoming increasingly monolithic in religion and ethnicity, destroying the last vestiges of cultural diversity.
Itani says that, if one considers Al-Qaeda's threats against the Egyptian Copts, the Islamist pressure on the Lebanese Christians to make bitter and dangerous choices, and the aggression against the Christians in Iraq, the only possible way for Christians to escape this "dark environment" is to emigrate .
Itani extrapolates from the plight of the Christians to the plight of all peoples in the region. He maintains that, as a matter of fact, the Christians face a brighter future than the Muslim majority – for the latter can expect a rapid diminishing of political, ethnic, and religious tolerance and openness to the opinion of others. The destruction of the Buddhist statutes in Bamyan, Afghanistan, is a striking example of the kind of religious and cultural intolerance that awaits them, he says.
Itani points out that the emigration of Christians in recent years, and of "other minorities" who left the Middle East in the past century (the reference is most likely to Jews) has coincided with the emigration of many educated and professional Muslims – which is another indication of the rejection of pluralism in the Arab and Muslim world.
The Iraqi Christians are in a state of panic. Archbishop Shlaymon Wardani, assistant to Cardinal Dali, has expressed doubts whether Al-Qaeda alone should be held responsible for the attack on the Baghdad church, and has predicted that Christians will flee – not just to the north of the country, where Christians have historically maintained their largest community, but out of the country. He added, "Every time we find a sense of hope, worse things happen that cause us to slide into despair again."
Columnist Jaber Habib Jaber wrote that the Baghdad attack was "not just another Baghdad tragedy, but a warning bell to alert us to [the campaign] brewing in the region to empty Iraq of its Christians. Such a development would mean turning Iraq into something else – religiously homogenous but with a high degree of fanaticism and readiness for more bloodshed."
* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at MEMRI.Read more at www.memri.org
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