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Their Last Christmas? Iraq's Endangered Non-Muslims

Nina Shea

On December 21, Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.) presided over the final hearing of the 109th session of Congress; fittingly for the season, it focused on the status of religious freedom around the world. The U.S. State Department testified about its recently released short list of the most egregious violators of religious freedom, those it officially designates as Countries of Particular Concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

This year, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan were named by State as the worlds worst persecutors. Listening to the testimony of the witnesses who included a Chinese Catholic, an Eritrean Christian, and a Vietnamese Buddhist monk recently released from prison was to be reminded of the crucial importance of Mr. Jeffersons first freedom.

But some of the bloodiest religious persecution anywhere is directed against Christians and other non-Muslim groups in a country not on the State Departments CPC list.

That country is Iraq.

The sectarian violence between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups is massive and appalling, and has rightly attracted the attention of Washington policymakers. But the plight of Iraqis one million Christians and non-Muslim minorities is not on anyones radar screen. The Iraq Study Group Report, for example, ignored them completely.

The situation of the non-Muslim minorities largely Christians (Chaldean Catholics, Assyrians, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, Protestants, and Evangelicals), but also including Yizidis (adherents of an ancient angel religion), Mandeans (followers of John the Baptist), Bahais, Kakai (followers of a syncretistic religion in the Kirkuk area), and Jews is uniquely dire. Half of them are estimated to have been driven from their homes in the past three years, either to other parts of the country or abroad. The very existence of these non-Muslims within Iraq may soon be extinguished under pervasive persecution that the U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees says is targeted against them due to religion.

The State Departments new Religious Freedom Report accurately depicts a defenseless non-Muslim population in Iraq that is being pounded by all other factions. It describes how al Qaeda terrorists, Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias, Kurdish militants, and criminal gangs all persecute and prey on these small religious minorities.

Yet U.S. policies to address their specific circumstances are non-existent. The administration argues that its overall policies of bringing stability and democracy to Iraq will help these minorities as well. Some in the State Department take the view that Iraq policy should not distinguish between Muslims and non-Muslims. But the problems faced by the non-Muslim minorities are unique, and there is a danger that, if we wait until the dust settles, it will be too late for them.

We should view Iraqs Christian ChaldoAssyrians and small religious minorities as we once did Soviet Jews. The persecution these non-Muslims face stands out against even the backdrop of horrific violence now wracking the rest of the population.

Lacking the militias, tribal structures, and foreign champions of Iraqs other groups, these Christians and other small groups are singularly defenseless. Some Islamist fundamentalists target them out of pure religious intolerance. To the extremist mindset, the non-Muslim religion and culture of the Christians and other small religious minorities identify them as collaborators with the infidel occupiers. And, because they do not govern any governmental department, they are at the tender mercies of those dominant groups who aim to take their property, businesses, and villages, and withhold from them American reconstruction aid.

In 2004, a dozen churches were attacked in coordinated bombings, and since then other churches have been destroyed. Over the past six months, seven clergymen have been kidnapped and two of them, a Presbyterian Evangelical and a Syriac Orthodox, both from Mosul, murdered. As the State Department notes, these religious groups can no longer gather in safety and many have stopped holding worship services altogether. My friend, the Chaldean Archbishop of Basra who says his prayers in the language of Jesus, Aramaic, as is the Chaldean tradition will not be celebrating Christmas Mass with his diocese this year; the Church has transferred him to Australia, and a mere few hundred Chaldean Catholics remain in Basra. These churches are not just lying low: They are being eradicated.

Women are being increasingly pressured to conform to supposed Islamic conduct and dress, while men who operate liquor stores and cinemas have also been murdered for their unIslamic businesses. Flyers were posted at Mosul University this month declaring that in cases where non-Muslims do not conform to wearing the Hijab (womans head cover) and are not conservative with their attire in accordance with the Islamic way, the violators will have the Sharia and the Islamic law applied to them. It was in Mosul that some female students were murdered for wearing Western clothes and mingling with men at a picnic last year, and where Fr. Paulis Iskander was beheaded and dismembered on October 11. The university flyer is being taken seriously.

Most of the death threats against non-Muslim minorities are personally addressed. The Chaldean Federation of America www.chaldeanfederation.org has numerous examples, such as the following:

To the traitor, apostate Amir XX, after we warned you more than once to quit working with the American occupiers, but you did not learn from what happened to others, and you continued, you and your infidel wife Rina XX by opening a women hair cutting place and this is among the forbidden things for us, and therefore we are telling you and your wife to quit these deeds and to pay the amount of (20,000) thousand dollars in protective tax for your violation and within only one week or we will kill you and your family, member by member, and those who have warned are excused. Al-Mujahideen Battalions.

There are many other such examples and many cases of targeted killings backing them up. Grisly reports of kidnapped Christian children being crucified and mutilated after ransoms were not paid have been reported by NRO, Fr. Keith Roderick, and the Assyrian International News Agency (on its website, www.aina.org ).

This week, I received a letter from the Sabean Mandean Association in Australia that detailed the cases of Mandeans kidnapped and assassinated for their religion. Some of the kidnap-for-ransom victims were reportedly circumcised before being released, a detail that indicates religion played a role in the crime.

Listed among the cases was the murder on December 2 of the Rev. Taleb Salman Araby, the deacon who assisted His Holiness Ganzevra Sattar Jabbar Hilo al-Zahrony, the worldwide head of the Mandean Community. He was easily recognizable because he wore the white rasta robes of the Mandean clergy. His family was prevented from holding a funeral service for him by extremists who threatened to blow up their house; the bereaved family was forced to bury him without any religious ceremony.

This violence against Christians and members of the smallest minorities is conducted with impunity. In northern Iraq and in the Nineveh Plains region where up to a third of the non-Muslims live, there have been no local police forces established (in contrast to other areas in Iraq), and the few forces provided from elsewhere have been known to harass and prey on these small minorities. The Washington-based Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project reports that courts in the Kurdish area routinely discriminate against Assyrians who contest land and property confiscated by Kurdish militants.

The Project also reports that, in the Kurdish areas, Christian and other minority towns have been excluded by provincial-level officials from benefiting from U.S reconstruction projects for water and electrical systems and denied their fair share of other utilities and services, such as schools and medical facilities. Apparently the U.S. has no safeguards or checks in place to prevent this. The Assyrian mayor of one of these towns, Telhaif, told me in November that such discrimination makes Christian towns and neighborhoods uninhabitable and forces their residents to leave. Once abandoned, Christian, Yizidi, and Mandean properties have been seized by Kurdish authorities. Such treatment has given rise to charges that Kurdish authorities are carrying out ethnic cleansing against Christians and other minorities, including such ethnic groups as the Shabaks and Turkomen.

Iraqs government has not been notably effective in protecting anyone, and its stance toward the Christians and other small minorities has been abysmal. The Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, was quoted earlier this year urging kidnappers to target Christian women instead of Muslims. After addressing the tragic abduction of his own sister, Thayseer, the Speaker was reported saying: Why kidnap this Muslim woman; instead of Thayseer, why not kidnap Margaret or Jean? The latter are Christian names implying that it would have been better for a Christian woman to have been kidnapped, raped, and killed.

The United States has a great moral responsibility to address the plight of the most vulnerable of Iraqs religious groups. Even from the realist foreign-policy perspective, it would serve American interests. Last spring, one Iraqi government official a Muslim urged me, Speak up for the Christians they have needed skills and they bring moderation. Iraq needs them.

Specific policy actions are required to help them. But these policies should differ from the efforts we once took to rescue another religious minority, Soviet Jewry because most of Iraqs Christians, Yizidis, and Mandeans do not want to leave Iraq, their ancestral home.

We must ensure that they receive an equitable share of U.S. reconstruction aid. We also need to provide assistance to the internally displaced, support their constitutional right to their own administrative department, ensure that their areas have local police forces, and take other actions developed by the Iraqi advocacy groups and religious-policy experts to increase the security of these minorities within Iraq. For the most desperate individuals, we must offer resettlement here in the United States, where hundreds of thousands of their relatives (largely refugees from persecutions in earlier periods) and co-religionists are eager to assist them.

Time is running out. Without a new commitment of U.S. help, this may be the last Christmas in Iraq.

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