WASHINGTON — Although Islam long has been in the ascendancy in Iraq, the so-called Assyrians, who speak a neo-Aramaic language, predate the rise of Islam. Today, however, the Iraqi Christian community faces possible extermination.
The irony is extraordinary: Christian America has inadvertently loosed the vicious forces bent on destroying Iraqi Christians. Persecuted by Islamic extremists and targeted for their frequent cooperation with occupation authorities, Christians have ever less hope in a nation that has fallen into violent chaos.
The Assyrian International News Agency has released a new report entitled “Incipient Genocide: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Assyrians of Iraq,” written by Peter BetBasoo. It makes for dreadful reading.
Since the American invasion, several hundred Assyrians have been murdered. Even more have been kidnapped. Dozens of churches have been bombed or otherwise attacked. Hundreds of Christian businesses have been torched because of the faith of their owners, wrecked for being non-Islamic (such as liquor stores) or ruined by criminal attacks and kidnappings. Christian women are being threatened and attacked for failing to follow Islamic law.
As sectarian violence has risen and the insurgency has surged, Christians have been targeted for retaliation. They long were despised by jihadists for their faith.
Then many Christians, who disproportionately spoke English, signed up to serve the U.S. military and occupation authorities. For them, the U.S. connection is a potential death sentence.
Yet Washington has done essentially nothing. In hopes of demonstrating impartiality, Washington has refused to help Christians, even when they have been literally placed under siege in their homes and neighborhoods.
Iraqi Christians have responded in the only way possible: running away. Roughly half of the prewar Christian community, possibly 750,000 people, is thought to have fled Iraq.
That Iraqi Christians have fared poorly in the midst of Muslim radicalism, whether Shiite or Sunni, comes as no surprise. Christians possess no military forces, no militias organized for their defense. Nor are their enclaves large enough to offer protection.
Less expected was Kurdistan’s mistreatment of the Assyrians.
Indeed, writes BetBasoo, the “systematic campaign of persecution . . . began in the Kurdish regions of north Iraq shortly after the first (Persian) Gulf war and spread to Baghdad and Basra after the liberation of Iraq in April of 2003. In the last three months it has intensified and is now openly declared in some areas of Iraq.”
Unfortunately, there is little hope that the violence will abate. To the contrary, contends BetBasoo: “Since Assyrians are not capable of defending themselves and are targeted as a class because of their distinct identity, what is now unfolding in Iraq can be termed an incipient genocide.” Using the term is inherently controversial, but Christianity is disappearing from Iraq. A distinct ethnic, lingual and religious community is being driven out.
Although the violence appears to be more anarchic than concerted, it has had the same effect as an organized campaign to destroy Iraq’s Assyrians. Virtually every member of the community is under siege. Today there is no safety even in Christian neighborhoods, since Islamist forces can invade them with impunity. Whatever the virtues of the surge, safeguarding Christians is not among them.
BetBasoo reports that in early March “al-Qaida moved into Dora, a predominantly Assyrian neighborhood in south Baghdad, and began imposing strict Islamic law.” The only alternatives offered were death or flight — or delivering a daughter or sister to the mosque for marriage to a local Muslim man.
Families who did leave were charged an “exit fee.” Threatened Christians appealed to both the Iraqi government and the U.S. military, without result. “Nobody really cares,” one of them despaired in an e-mail to the Assyrian International News Service.
Unfortunately, the worse the situation in Iraq, the less hope there is to save Iraqi Christians. The Assyrian community has called for creation of a protected enclave, though its survival after a future U.S. military withdrawal is doubtful. Certainly the U.S. and its allies should welcome Christians fleeing the violence. Muslim refugees may have some hope of returning to a future Iraq that becomes stable if not liberal.
The Assyrians are far less likely to find a tolerant and tolerable environment. America and other coalition members should open their doors. These are, after all, people who favor the allies, have been endangered because of American policy, and have nowhere else to go.
Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow of the American Conservative Defense Alliance and vice president for Policy of Citizen Outreach. He is a former special assistant to the late former President Ronald Reagan and the author of “Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire” (Xulon Press).