Recently, a friend suggested I tune in to a programme on BBC Radio 4 entitled Iraq’s Forgotten Conflict. Presented by the veteran journalist Edward Stourton, it probed for forty minutes the current plight of Christians, as well as that of Mandaeans and Yezidis, in a war-ravaged Iraq that also includes Sabeans, Turkomen and Shabaks amongst other groups.
Throughout his interviews, Stourton highlighted the reality of Christians as one of those smaller communities in Iraq that have been suffering the dire consequences of the 2003 war – 1,000 deaths, in addition to the disproportionate numbers that have fled to neighbouring Syria and Jordan as well as to Lebanon and some Western countries - whereby many of them have now become part of an ever-growing UNHCR refugee population.
Mind you, the programme also used the term “minorities” when referring to those communities, something I know will have disheartened many of them who often point up that they are part and parcel of the mainstream of the country and its populace, albeit with different faith backgrounds or ethnicities.
According to some statistics, Christians in Iraq numbered about 1.3 million just before 2003, centred largely, though not exclusively in Baghdad, with the Chaldean Catholics being the biggest community. Today, well over one-third have either fled the country or headed to the ‘secure’ northern Nineveh province where they seek shelter amongst Iraqi Arabs and Kurds.
However, those Christians too have been attacked continually, and Mosul for instance, has become a nightmare for many of them with the government(s) seemingly unable, or worse, unwilling to enforce the rule of law and provide them with adequate protection. So those hapless men and women are simply caught between bellicose Kurdish peshmergas and Islamist militants - or literally between a rock and a hard place.
No wonder then that Bishop Declan Lang, chairman of the International Affairs Department at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, addressed a letter on 30 March 2010 to the Iraqi authorities in which he asserted that “those attacks against Catholics and other Christians are not only unsettling but also alarming” and that “they also underline the precarious nature of the measures taken to protect them in their own country”.
When US President Bush and the UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, decided to wage war in 2003, the fate of those Iraqi Christians was never truly in their minds, let alone on their consciences - a bleeding irony for two politicians who claimed to embrace their Christian faith ever-meaningfully.
So it was Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who explained compassionately and lucidly on the BBC programme that “the Christianity both of them were shaped by is, on the whole, a very, very Western thing,” and that neither “of them had very much sense of the indigenous Christian life and history that there is in the region.” How true indeed, since Middle Eastern Christians are Eastern, not Western, with their own presence, life and witness.
The double-bind they now face is that their distinctive differences and indigenous roots, pre-dating Islam by some five centuries, are on the one hand arrogantly dismissed by some Western Christians whilst on the other being attacked virulently by Islamist groups who seem intent on getting rid of them for the sake of re-creating a Caliphate-style theocracy in Iraq. Yet any attempt by the West to support local Christians reinforces the view that they are a Western fifth column that does not belong to the land or region.
Sadly, this ill-thought [out] war has released a frighteningly unruly genie out of the bottle, and it will not be easy to put it back in again! Yet, many pundits share my opinion that the challenge in Iraq remains strictu sensu political, not religious, and one of a handful of politicians in the present constellation who might perhaps come closest to engender any sense of reconciliation is Ayyad Allawi.
However, the odds against Allawi becoming prime minister following the recent parliamentary elections are high due to unease in some quarters over his own support base, as much as [with] numerous political shenanigans that have to do with Iranian geostrategic designs, American prevarications as much as Iraqi back-room deals or Arab power-play bargains.
This is the life of those entrenched local Christians who often find themselves between Scylla and Charybdis: faced with such hardships, they are now also witnessing a proliferation of Western churches that have come seeking converts and who, in the process, are also trampling over the millennia-old theology and philosophy of the Christian communities. Consequently, they have stoked further the fires of deplorable anti-Christian Islamist agendas.
Perhaps the West - in its initial zeal to install ‘democracy’, or in its later efforts to create ‘stability’ - would realise that we could all end up witnessing the return of dhimmi-style servitude in the country or, as the Archbishop of Canterbury predicted sagely, we will eventually witness a land devoid of Christians.
During Holy Week, Archbishop Dr Avak Asadourian, General Secretary of the Council of Christian Church Leaders of Iraq, reminded his congregation of a passage from St John’s First Letter that "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love". (1 John 4.8).
Those scriptural words apply politically to those Iraqis who have chosen hatred over love, division over unity, alienation over reconciliation. So my prayer today is that the forthcoming special synod on the Christians of the Middle East [to be convened by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome in October 2010] will address the decidedly regional and socially discriminate fault-lines that are being mauled time and again with unfaithful impunity.
© Harry Hagopian is a former executive secretary for the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC). He is now an ecumenical, legal and political consultant for the Armenian Church. As well as advising the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales on Middle East and inter-faith questions, Dr Hagopian is involved with ACEP, the Paris-based Christians in Political Action (http://www.chretiensenpolitique.eu/ ) and has also written extensively on the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23. His own website is Epektasis (http://www.epektasis.net/ ) and his regular contributions to Ekklesia - including five recent Easter podcasts on Christians in the Middle East - are aggregated here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian