And why supporting Syria’s rebels may extinguish Christianity in its oldest environs.
The recent dedication of George W. Bush’s presidential library in Texas briefly rekindled debate about the defining event of his presidency, the Iraq War. The visceral hatred of many for the war and the man having substantially diminished, a more sober assessment of both seemed to prevail in the coverage. In the same news cycle there appeared a seemingly unrelated event, the abduction of two Orthodox bishops in Syria. In fact, the conflict in Syria and the American invasion of Iraq are linked by a common thread: the failure of the U.S. to consider the effect of its foreign policy on vulnerable religious communities, especially Middle Eastern Christians.
In March 2003, on the eve of war in Iraq, Pope John Paul II dispatched Cardinal Pio Laghi, a senior Vatican diplomat, to Washington to make a final plea to Bush not to invade. Laghi, chosen for his close ties to the Bush family, outlined “clearly and forcefully” the Vatican’s fears of what would follow an invasion: protracted war, significant casualties, violence between ethnic and religious groups, regional destabilization, “and a new gulf between Christianity and Islam.” The warning was not heeded.
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.
Ironically, hundreds of thousands Iraqi Christians would find refuge in the quasi-autonomous republic of Kurdistan in the north. “They arrived,” Kassab would note, “with nothing on their backs and the Kurds came to the rescue.” Traveling to the region to assist with resettlement efforts, Kassab observed a Kurdish government willing despite inadequate resources to help the fleeing Christians. The Kurds went to the U.S. government, which they believed was partly responsible for the refugee crisis, to ask for help. “This fell on deaf ears,” Kassab recalls.
Today Iraqi Kurdistan is assimilating refugees from another neighboring country torn apart by sectarian violence: Syria. 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.
The objective of the Iraq War—to democratize the Middle East—may yet be realized. But democracy in the Middle East is proving less tolerant than the regimes it has succeeded. Unless swift action is taken, these democracies will evolve into bastions of intolerance and violence beyond our comprehension. These democracies will not march ineluctably toward liberty and pluralism, as some naïve optimists continue to forecast despite the evidence, but will end in the ordered barbarism of Saudi Arabia, where punishments include beheading and crucifixion, according to Amnesty International.
When he came to office, President Bush famously scribbled in a report on the Clinton administration’s inaction during the Rwandan genocide, “Not on my watch.” Clinton today admits that inaction in Rwanda is his greatest regret. One day, Bush may look back on the neglect of the Middle East’s Christians with similar regret. Cardinal Laghi would recall that Bush “seemed to truly believe in a war of good against evil,” that his work was providential. “You might start, and you don’t know how to end it,” the prelate warned. In this sense, the Iraq War continues, and with it the deliberate extinction of Middle Eastern Christians.
Andrew Doran served on the Executive Secretariat of the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO at the U.S. Department of State, where he has since worked as a consultant. His views are his own.
This is an important article. Too bad that it is ten years too late, and that the Christian churches in the U.S. (especially the Evangelical Churches in the South) either supported the war, or remained silent (e.g., members of the National Council of Churches and the Council itself). Had William Sloan Coffin been alive today it would have been very different outcome.
As for Syria, while no one contests that it was a police state under Hafez Assad remained authoritarian under his son Bashar, yet Bashar did take a number of important steps to democratize the system (i.e., do what the U.S. has been demanding in the way of “democracy” and “human rights”) including terminating Syria’s Emergency Law in 2011- a law granting plenary powers to the President and which had been operative for decades- and introducing a program of Constitutional reform to: (1) replace the single party Baathist state with a multiparty system, (2) establish term limits for the Presidency, (3) schedule and hold new parliamentary elections and a referendum on the government and the process, and (4) schedule a Presidential election to be held in 2014.
It cannot be overemphasized that Syria for a long time has been a non-sectarian state that did not discriminate against specific ethnic or religious groups. While much has been made of conflict between Sunni and Shia, especially the Sunni and Alawite population, it is a canard. The government was always careful to include many Sunni officials in its leadership, and a large percentage of the Sunni population was and still is supportive of the Assad regime, even though in 1980, the regime did crack down on those Muslim Brotherhood extremists years ago that tried to incite a civil war, overthrow the government and assassinate Hafez Assad.
As for the massacres in Homs, Hama and Houlas in 2011/2012 that the rebels and the Western mainstream media tried to blame on the Assad government (even to the point where the BBC went to such extremes as to use a photo from the Iraq Fallujah massacre as proof that the Syrian government was responsible), investigations by a number of independent sources, including a team from the Arab League (whose findings were later omitted by the Arab League leadership) and newspapers such the Frankfurt Allgemeine proved otherwise.
I recall reading in a Middle Eastern newspaper a report of an Armenian Orthodox Christian church destroyed by the rebels, where the report quoted the Armenian Catholicos of Cilicia, the highest prelate in the Church, yet none of the U.S. newspapers picked up the story. Similarly I have read articles quoting Catholic clergy and nuns attesting to the brutality be the rebel forces, and again these have received no coverage in the U.S. or British mainstream media.
One might also add that starting in the early years of the Iraq war, Syria took in almost a million Iraqi refugees whom they housed, fed, clothed, and for whom they provided medical care, and educated their children,
while the Bush Administration let in several hundred.
Now these people are again living in a country wracked with violence, and it is all due to a U.S. foreign policy which planned and executed a clandestine war (e.g., with COIN Special Ops, with NATO coordination from bases in Turkey that as well as by U.S. officials such as Robert Ford, the U.S. Ambassador to Syria) which subsequently erupted into a violent hot war.
To this reader, who is both Christian and American, our nation’s foreign and military policy has been deeply painful and embarrassing, especially where Congress and the Administration have still not recognized or admitted their responsibility for the wars of aggression they have endorsed and the horrific damage they have inflicted on so many innocent peoples and nations. If anyone has been criminal, it has been us and we will remain so until we finally stop and let these nations and their people decide their own political destiny, and with a nation like Syria, it is especially disingenuous for us to do otherwise, where we already know that its government had in place or was implementing a political system inclusive of its people.
Well Mr. Doran,
I read this yesterday. It’s hard to respond. On the hand, one doesn’t want anyone to suffer. And while I think we are responsible without doubt for the current state of Iraq and most likely should not be laving, save their say so, I can only echo your own frustration.
Before the invasion, I was surprised to find that Iraq had Jews. I knew there were growing christian communities, but I was surpised that Jews existed in the region. I am not surprised that Christians are under threat. Anymore than that Israel is more at risk via the regional instability. Perhaps, that suits their purposes.
What I assumed that this article was going to describe was the backlash against Christians as a result of the Iraq and Afgahnistan invasions.
Appreciated the article.
An excellent article which does not answer the most important question posed by the facts: what duty do Christians in the United States owe a government which actively persecutes them here and abroad? Does participating in activities such as voting, contributing, paying taxes or other visible support for the American regime give rise to a claim of persecution? How do we deal with this as Christians?
Andy in CO says:
An excellent article the message if which will sadly fall on deaf ears. I have seen users on neocon sites like RedState flat out say that they don’t care about the plight of religious minorities in the countries that the US has “liberated”.
I was dragged kicking and screaming to a church service a couple of years ago that was a lot like any other service I’ve been to, except the sermon was not about Jesus or anything like that. Instead they had a guest speaker, fiction author Joel Rosenberg who proceeded to give an entire presentation about Iran. Am I the only one who sees something wrong about this?
American evangelicals have been duped by Israel-first apocalyptic charlatans and Republican warhawks into supporting wanton foreign aggression. I’m not even religious and I’m sickened by it. One would think they would care about what this has done to their Christian brethren in that region but it seems like they don’t care, don’t know, or don’t regard them as real Christians.
James Canning says:
mnlw – – Great post. And one might add that virtually all leadders of the various Christian communities in Syria said publicly that their rights were better protected by the Syrian gov’t under Bashar al-Assad, than they would be in a democracy.
Needless to say, such statements get no coverage in the US. Or next to no coverage.
Michael Benavram says:
America’s “Christian Zionists” are major contributors to the destruction of the Christian presence in the Middle East. These intellectually-challenged Neanderthals, like John Hagee, have adopted the mantra “Israel can do no wrong”, while simultaneously clinging to the hope of for a total Jewish in-gathering, for an annihilation of those Jews who continue to reject Jesus. This a Hitlerlian mind-set – masquerading as Christianity – providing energy for the enemies of peace and reconciliation.
When you’ve got a president whose theology tells him that he can speed the return of Christ by setting up the conditions for the emergence of the Antichrist, bad things are certain to happen.
Religion is something that has been often used to incite sectarianism. Us vs Them. Christian vs Muslims. This has been used by politicians and leaders to aggravate one’s own population to hate and then attack another. It is a political tool. That is exactly what happened to prop up the “War on Terror”, and it was exactly what was used to incite support for the Iraq War, and drive millions of American Christians into supporting that war.
But what people really don’t know is that its all a farce. This “War on Terror” was not used to [merely] deprive Muslims and Arabs of their rights, but it was used to do so right at home. To deny Americans their right, privacy and freedoms (i.e, Patriot Act, TSA, NDAA’12, etc).
So while Christianity was used to ‘justify’ the Invasion of Iraq, it was actually a systematic campaign to subvert Christianity. The biggest victim of Iraq was the Iraqi Christian community. They were attacked from all sides.
Many Iraqi Christians died, and others were forced to flee. And they escaped to Syria. And now we wage war in Syria! But this is nothing new: Christians lived peacefully in Palestine, so we bombed Palestine. Christians lived peacefully in Iraq, so we bombed Iraq. Christians lived peacefully in Syria, so we bombed Syria.
Bush, Obama, all these politicians who claim or claimed to be Christians, are nothing more than Charlatans. Their agenda was never religious, it was always political. And that politics is: corporatism, Zionism, the military-industrial complex, and most of all ‘control’. And sectarianism (be it religious, nationalist, or anti-religious) is the greatest tool for control.
The Iraq War was “not about oil” or even WMDs, it was about the Zionist lobby and the Military-industrial complex. Even if we assume that Saddam has chemical-weapons – how does that threaten America? Iraq is over 10,000km from US shores; their missiles would never reach America! The only country under any threat was Israel.
While people blame Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld for the war, nobody talks about those pulling their strings. The people who were behind the scenes actively pushing for the war. The “Office of Special Plans”” made up of Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith who propped up the war.
One needs to go back to the 1996 Israeli policy document entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”. In it, its cited that its Israel’s strategy for domination in the region to topple Saddam (Iraq), and systematically undermine Syria via proxy warfare and highlighting of its WMDs (prompting isolation by the international community).
And who were the authors of that document? Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser.
— “David Wurmser”: He served as Dick Cheney’s Middle-East Adviser.
— “Douglas Feith”: He served as the “Under Secretary of Defense for Policy” to Donald Rumsfeld. And headed the “Office of Special Plans” alongside Wolfowitz.
— “Paul Wolfowitz”: He served as the “Deputy Secretary of Defense” to Donald Rumsfeld. And in the “Office of Special Plans” alongside Feith.
— “Richard Perle”: He served as the Chairman of the “Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee”.
It needs to be noted that all three: Perle, Wolfowitz and Feith were originally Democrats (“working for Henry Jackson”) and only switched to Republican during the Reagan era. And all 3 of them + Wurmser, link back to “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm”.
Thank you for this article. While I cannot judge whether or not the personal faith of GW Bush is genuine, I can agree with you that his foreign policy, continued by Obama, has resulted in the killing and displacement of hundreds of thousands of middle east Christians in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and now Syria. Since 2005, it has been the policy of our govt to see the influence of Turkey grow and dominate the Middle East. As Turkey has turned more Islamist, our policy has only accelerated. The goal of the Muslim brotherhood is the resurrection of the Islamic Caliphate, headed by Turkey as it was for hundreds of years, only expiring in 1923 with the execution of the ruling Caliph by Ataturk in Turkey.
Just recently the Turkish foreign minister has stated that Turkey sees the 20th century as a parentheses in its historic role of leadership in the Middle East. Our foreign policy has directly led to the overthrow of all of the secular dictators in the Middle East, in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and now Syria, al. The Arab spring was always the Arab night of the Wahhabi/Al-Qaida/Taliban/jihadist form of Islam – the Saudi version of Sharia where it is more important to cause the death of school age girls, by preventing them from escaping a burning school, if their emergency escape means appearing in public in immodest dress. Saudi Sharia Law is a totalitarian system of rule by Islamic judges, incompatible with self-government. Let us remember that when Bush 41 visited the troops on thanksgiving during the first gulf war, he was asked by the Saudi’s to say his Christian thanksgiving prayer on one of our aircraft carriers, outside of the Land of Mecca and Medina, so it would not be desecrated by such prayers. Bush complied of course.
The imposition of the Saudi version of Islam has directly led to the killing, displacement and persecution of hundreds of thousands of Christians in the Middle East. While we say Al-Qaeda is the enemy, we fund them as rebels or as the Muslim brotherhood in Libya, Syria, Egypt, etc. For those of you who are Christians, I would suggest reading “The Islamic Antichrist” by Joel Richardson, written prior to the Arab spring. It has opened my eyes to what may be going on in the Middle East. These are sad days for our brothers and sisters in the middle east and our govt is mainly responsible for unleashing this hell on earth against them. Have our “cheap grace” American churches spoken out? Sadly, only a few. Such news would not keep us “happy and positive”.
James Canning says:
Joseph – – Readers of The Times (London), the Daily Telegraph, and other British newspapers, learn that virtually all leaders of the various Christain communities in the occupied West Bank, say that the Israeli occupation has been a catastrophe for their communities. Have you seen such a story in an American newspaper?
Ditto regarding Christian leaders in Syria, who told British newsapers that the secular government of Bashar al-Assad gave them better protection than they would have in a democracy. Try to find this story in an American newspaper.
Thank you for this article. It is clear that the american government really is not in the middle East to establish democrazy, they are there for their own reasons.
Assyrians, the indigenous of turkey, iraq, syria, are being murdered by militant muslims and Obama does not care (neither did Bush) WHY?!??? If you really care about human lifes you would not just blow upp countries without any thoughts of the consequences
As always such article portraits the Kurds as some kind of saviors for the Iraqi christins. The truth however is that they have been oppressing the Assyrian minority, and other Christians, as they have occupied large amounts of land from these people. It is all a big show. The Assyrian people became a minority on their own lands because of he actions of the Turks and the kurds when they committed the genocide. If the Kurds are such good people they can start by apologizing for their crimes and then return only parts of the land they took from the victims. If Iraq is a federal state then the Assyrian minority also has an equal right to create their own region, the argument that it would divide Iraq is not sufficient because the country is already divided and the fact that close to a million Christians have fled the country is a much bigger argument for such a region.. The greatest threat to the survival of Iraqi minorities is the illegal land grabbing that the Kurdish authorities are doing..