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Minorities under Threat! The Case of Iraqi Christians
Earlier this week, and for a couple of days, the news headlines in the UK and across much of Europe focused on a request by the Iraqi government that the US security firm Blackwater pay US$8 million in compensation to each of the families of seventeen Iraqis killed on 16th September in a shooting incident in western Baghdad...

10 October   |   2007   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... An investigation set up by PM Nuri Al-Maliki had found that agents from this firm had “deliberately killed” those people. Although it is unclear how the case would develop in the coming weeks, there have been discussions about the levels of protection and the degrees of impunity with which private security firms seem to operate in Iraq as they “protect” their high-profile clients.

Much as this case reeks of fistfuls of dollars and as many bullets, my mind goes today to the scores of Iraqi men, women and children who simply do not have the wherewithal to protect themselves or to hire those specialist experts who could defend them and their families from the unfailing lawlessness in Iraq. The Shi’i, Sunni and Kurdish communities who face daily risks and dangers in different parts of the country are at least sufficiently large in numbers to be able to fend for themselves and ensure that their sheer survival is not at stake. This cannot be said about other minorities that have lived in Mesopotamia / Iraq for centuries and have enriched the country with their own traditions, skills and loyalties.

One such minority community under serious threat but whose plight goes largely unnoticed are indigenous Christians. After all, they are not sensationalist enough to attract the attention of the media and tabloid papers in the West, nor powerful enough to lobby for their rights or impose their presence upon the occupying American forces or the beleaguered Iraqi authorities. They, like other minorities, risk life and limb and often pay the critical price of the rampant chaos in Iraq today.

This reality struck a nerve with me again last week when I appraised the report of a recent ecumenical visit to Sweden by the Council of Christian Church Leaders in Baghdad. The six-person delegation comprised high-level representatives from the Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern and Protestant Churches. On 25th September, the General Secretary of the Council, Archbishop Avak Asadourian, addressed the inaugural session of the General Assembly Synod of the Church of Sweden at Uppsala and shared with them the concerns of all Christian Iraqis today. He reminded his audience that the delegation came to Sweden not only from a troubled Middle Eastern region that witnessed the origins of the three monotheistic and Abrahamic religions, but also from a wounded country where St Thomas the Apostle and his disciples had proclaimed Christianity. In concluding his address, the Primate voiced the hope that there will be light at the end of the dark tunnel, and that this light will be lit by people of good will in Iraq - be they Muslims, Christians or followers of other faiths.

The stark reality of what is happening to the Christian communities in Iraq was also addressed in fuller detail by Reverend Canon Andrew White. In his testimony Threats to Iraq's Communities of Antiquity last July, he referred to the displacement of Christians from their residences, such as the Dora neighbourhood of Baghdad, and the threats let alone violence directed against them. He also referred to abductions, forced conversions and imposed taxes, as well as existential challenges such as physical security, food and water, the freedom to worship, or engagement with other faith communities. He echoed the suspicion harboured by some Iraqi Muslims that Christians are too close to the Americans and therefore questionable in their national loyalties. Canon Andrew concluded this segment of his testimony by adding that the western coalition forces must accept their contribution to the sufferings and demise of Christians in Iraq and the major role they have played in creating the problem. He lamented the fact that countless meetings and reports come out covering the issue of minorities in Iraq, but they do not seem to lead to practical or concrete follow-up steps that would improve the status of minorities or defend their rights. He appealed for urgent action if the religious minorities were to survive in the cradle of civilization in Iraq.

This appeal by Canon White was replicated last week by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, after meeting three-hundred Christian refugees in Syria. According to a report in The Tablet magazine, the refugees recounted to the Archbishop their stories of targeted ethnic cleansing and harassment and how they were despised because they shared the same religion as the Americans and British. Such statements should provide us with sobering thoughts about the status of those minorities who are paying the hefty price of discrimination and who have become willy-nilly the unwitting and defenceless victims of a war that has terrorised Iraq and cleaved its communities.

So what are we doing to help Iraqi minorities - Christians, Yazidis, Mandeans or others - live in peace and security?  How are we ensuring that our efforts reach out to the needy, marginalised and oppressed men and women? Or are we perchance too busy with our own backyards, interests and comfort zones to care much about this ancient but significant mosaic of Iraq?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2007   |   10 October


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