Two weeks after the Bush-Laghi meeting, on March 19, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom commenced. Shortly after combat operations concluded on May 1, the real conflict began. Amid the chaos and sectarian violence that followed, Iraq’s Christians suffered severe persecution. Neither the military nor the State Department took action to protect them. In October 2003, human rights expert Nina Shea noted that religious freedom and a pluralistic Iraq were not high priorities for the administration, concluding that its “diffidence on religious freedom suggests Washington’s relative indifference to this basic human right.” Shea added, “Washington’s refusal to insist on guarantees of religious freedom threatens to undermine its already difficult task of securing a fully democratic government in Iraq”—more prescience that would be likewise disregarded.
Iraq’s diaspora Christian community in America had also foreseen the danger, and quickly took action, helping thousands of refugees with humanitarian assistance. The Chaldean Federation’s Joseph Kassab, himself a refugee from Baathist Iraq decades before, advocated zealously for their protection. Kassab’s brother, Jabrail, a Chaldean archbishop, helped organize relief in Iraq during the sanctions from 1991-2003, doing “all that he could to help the Iraqi people—Christians and Muslims together.” His brother remained at his post until October 2006, when a Syrian Orthodox priest, Fr. Paulos Eskander, was abducted and beheaded, after which Pope Benedict ordered him to leave Iraq. Fr. Eskander’s murder was part of a campaign that targeted the most conspicuous of Christians—the clergy.
In February 2008, Archbishop Paulos Rahho’s vehicle was attacked after he finished praying the Stations of the Cross in Mosul. His driver and bodyguards were killed. Rahho, wounded but alive, was put into the trunk of the assassins’ car and taken from the scene. He managed to pull out his cell phone and call his church to tell them not to pay his ransom, saying he “believed that this money would not be paid for good works and would be used for killing and more evil actions.” His body was found in a shallow grave two weeks later.
During this campaign of systematic violence, the U.S. military provided no protection to the already vulnerable Christian community. In some instances, the clergy went to local American military units to beg to for protection. None was given. As Shea noted two weeks later, the administration and the State Department—whose record on Christian minorities and religious freedom leaves much to be desired—still refused to “acknowledge that the Christians and other defenseless minorities are persecuted for reasons of religion.”
A month after the murder of Archbishop Rahho, President Bush addressed the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Joseph Kassab had been invited to pray the Hail Mary and Our Father in Aramaic following Bush’s remarks, an act of solidarity with the Christians of the Arab world. “I had two or three minutes with the president behind the curtains,” Kassab said in a recent interview. “He said he thought you had to fix the whole picture before coming to the other elements. It was disappointing. He knew it was a failure and his administration refused to acknowledge that.”
Rosie Malek-Yonan, an Assyrian Christian who testified before Congress, would call the Bush administration a “silent accomplice” to “incipient genocide.” Anglican Canon Andrew White of Baghdad’s Ecumenical Congregation captured the reality with blunt precision: “All of my leadership were taken and killed—all dead.”
Those Iraqi Christians who fled to America would fare little better in seeking asylum. Many Chaldeans and Assyrians were detained, until their cases were heard, in what an attorney familiar with Chaldean-asylum cases describes as “prisons,” adding that she “never worked on a case where a Chaldean was granted asylum, but I heard that it happened.” Throughout these deportation proceedings, the administration and the State Department steadfastly refused to recognize the conditions—which the U.S. had helped to bring about—as “persecution.” In consequence, most were deported.
Most were deported. Good Lord, I had no idea. What a freaking disgrace upon my country and its government. And though not as bad as Bush, the current president is still at it:
Among the refugees are more Iraqi Christians, who originally fled to the relative freedom and tolerance of Syria, only to find themselves again fleeing persecution, often hunted by Syria’s rebels. Many of these rebels are members or affiliates of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. The Obama administration, bewilderingly, has chosen to support Syria’s rebel groups without any apparent thought of the consequences. The extent of covert support remains unclear, though reports suggest it is significant. As in Iraq, the insurgent campaign in Syria targets priests, the most visible symbols of the Christian faith.
The protection and perseverance of minority religious communities—indeed, of religious freedom—continues to be a low priority for the Obama administration and the State Department. The U.S. fails to recognize that the Islamist-Wahabbist commitment to eradicating Christian minorities today will result in the extinction of diverse modes of Islam tomorrow, a fact that is not lost on moderate Muslims.
A foreign correspondent I know, a thoroughly secular man of wide international experience, writes to me:
A hundred years from now, I suspect the lasting historical legacy of the American interventions in the Middle East and of the fall of the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt will be the end of Christianity in the Middle East. Anyone wanting confirmation of Hegel’s axiom that history is a slaughter bench need look no further than the the fact that this process should have been hastened (for I suppose one could argue it was likely over the long term, anyway, because in the Middle East, as in Europe after World War I, multicultural and multi-confessional societies are no longer able to survive) by the decisions of American president whose Christian identity seems to have meant more to him than to any president since Jimmy Carter (not the ONLY parallel between them, by the way, though of course the suggestion would horrify both men). And why so many conservative Christians (not just neo-cons and liberal hawks) support doubling down on this mistake in Syria is a complete mystery to me.
I am working this morning from a hotel room in Texas, where I’ve come on business for a couple of days. I just had a heartbreaking conversation with the maid, an older woman who is a Kosovar Muslim war refugee. Dear lady, she talked about how thankful she is to America that our country offered her and her husband and children refuge from Milosevic’s persecution, but how humiliating it has been for her to work as a chambermaid all these years.
“I only make enough to pay my rent and my groceries, but I am happy for that,” she said. “At least I have my life. But it is hard, when you have everything taken from you, and you are so old when you come to this new country that the only thing you have the language skills for is cleaning rooms.”
I could tell that she felt bad that she had complained. She followed by saying that she is grateful that she and her family have their lives, and weren’t murdered by the Serbs. I told her I agreed, and that I feel sorry today for the Serbian Orthodox monks and nuns whose monasteries are today being desecrated and destroyed by Kosovar Muslim thugs. She smiled sadly.
Anyway, America gave this Muslim woman and her family a haven from persecution in a war we didn’t start. Yet we could not give Arab Christian families — people from our own cultural and civilizational roots — a haven, even though we started the war that led directly to their own murder and persecution.
Shame on America. Christian readers, let’s batter the offices of our members of Congress and our president on behalf of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, who are suffering in part because of our country’s actions.