By David Alton
Spare a thought and a prayer for Iraq’s one million Christians. Caught already in the crossfire of a propaganda war, they will be in a particularly exposed and dangerous position when bullets begin to fly.
When Saddam Hussein’s deputy, Tariq Aziz, made his high profile visit to the Vatican and to Assisi great play was made of his Christian background. Yet, Tariq Aziz has colluded with Saddam in the brutal attacks made on the Marsh Arabs, the Kurds, Iraq’s political dissenters, and the invasion of Kuwait, and the defiance of the United Nations. And Christians have suffered as a consequence of those policies too.
Some apologists for Saddam have suggested that his regime has treated Christians well. This is dangerous nonsense.
As they are targeted by fanatics trying to tar them as a “western religion” it is worth recalling that they preceded both western Christianity and Islam.
In the Book of Acts, St Luke mentions the people of Mesopotamia – ancient Iraq. These Assyrians and Chaldeans (who use the Aramaic of Jesus) were one of the first local churches. There are several denominations amongst the Assyrians (Assyrian and Syrian Orthodox account for 51% and Chaldean Catholic for 48% Presbyterians, who arrived in 1820, account for less than 1% ).
I visited some of the few remaining Assyrian monasteries and villages in the Turabdin region of neighbouring Turkey. Along with other Christians from the ancient churches (particularly the Armenians) they have been ruthlessly annihilated other the past century.
When Saddam committed his atrocities against the Kurds (including chemical warfare) he targeted Assyrian villages – about 300,000 of them live among the Kurds and Turkomen in the north – because of their Kurdish sympathies.
About 400,000 more Assyrian Christians live around Baghdad and along with the rest of the Iraqi population they have been terrorised by Saddam. No peace rallies for them – not if they want to keep their liberty or their lives. One radio commentator made a critical comment of Saddam, was immediately arrested, had her tongue cut out and was executed. Any critical comment has been met with a violent and brutal response.
The Church has been targeted in many ways.
Last year Saddam issued a ruling that all babies born in Iraq must be given an Arabic or Islamic name. One of the few positive by-products of the international situation is that it has had a dampening effect on the implementation of this edict; obviously conscious of the impact in the west.
Saddam’s son, Uday, has also published anti-Christian material in his newspaper Babil (meaning Babylon) and dedicates a whole page of the publication for this specific purpose.
One Shia leader has also publicly called for Christians in the south to “be pushed out of Iraq into the sea.” The few isolated Christian communities in the south will be particularly vulnerable (which is why the Basque Cardinal, Roger Echtegeray, has worked so hard to act as a mediator and to separate whatever military actions are taken by the West from the position of the Church).
Aid To the Church In Need says that “there have been numerous death threats and attacks on priests and Christian books stores” and that supporters of Saddam have told Christians “Ask the Americans to feed you. You have no business here.” CAN also report Albert Yelda, leader of the Iraqi National congress opposition as saying that the government of Iraq has ordered the destruction of villages and churches of Assyrian Christians; “Saddam’s son,” he says “has even raped and murdered Assyrian women. He even admitted this in public.”
It is a dangerous and extremely difficult situation for this vulnerable minority. And there is little guarantee that the world of Saddam would be any less dangerous. As this crisis deepens and the fog of war engulfs us we shouldn’t lose sight of this forgotten group of people.