Fasting from sunrise to sunset is a struggle for Muslims during this month of Ramadan. The month will present a more dangerous struggle for non-Muslims in Iraq, against whom Islamic terrorists promise to increase their violence.
On Thursday, October 12, Syrian Orthodox Metropolitan of Mosul, Saliba Chamoun, buried one of his priests, the latest victim of violence targeting Christians and other minorities in Iraq during Ramadan. Father Boulos Iskander had been kidnapped the previous Monday by an unknown Islamic extremist group. Family and church authorities negotiated with the abductors, who demanded $350,000 in ransom, but later promised to reduce the amount to $40,000 if Pope Benedict XVI's reference to historical Islamic violence was publicly condemned.
The ransom was raised and paid. St. Epharim's parishioners dutifully posted 30 large signs on walls around the city repudiating the Pope's statements. They awaited word of Fr. Iskander's promised release. On Wednesday in the Tahir City District, a mile from the Mosul city center, the priest's body was found. Fr. Iskander's severed head lay atop his chest. His severed arms and legs were placed around his head.
The same day as Fr. Iskander's kidnapping, the leader of the Mandaean religious community (followers of John the Baptist), Sheikh Raad Mutar Saleh, was assassinated in Suweira, 35 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Also, during that same violent week, there were reports that a 14-year-old boy was crucified in the Christian neighborhood of Albasra. Unfortunately, the killing of children is not a new tactic of Muslim insurgents targeting Christians; nor is its practice limited to Ramadan.
In June, Rosie Malek-Yonan, Christian Assyrian author of The Crimson Field, recounted additional cases of murdered Christian children to the U.S. House International Relations Committee. Two years ago, a 15-year-old boy, Fadi Shamoon, was riding his bicycle in the Assyrian district of Baasheeqa, when he was kidnapped by Kurdish Islamists. His body was found along a roadside, cut into pieces and burned. Similarly, another Assyrian boy, 14-year-old Julian Yacoub, was knocked unconscious by a concrete block, then set afire in a Islamist-inspired attack in the same district.
On October 4, an Assyrian Christian neighborhood in Camp Sara was devastated by a bomb that killed nine persons. The week before, two similar explosive devices were used in an attack on the Assyrian Cathedral of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad. Islamists also targeted a Dominican convent. Two days later, during the second week of Ramadan, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul was attacked. In the past two years, over 27 churches have been attacked or bombed. Reports of kidnappings and rape of young girls are widespread. A Syriac-Orthodox priest living in Sweden described the Ramadan campaign against Christians as pure terror: "Now only hell is expected for the Christians of Iraq."
Other minorities have also suffered at the hands of Islamists. The Shabak community (a minority Muslim sect) has claimed that 100 of their followers have been murdered by Muslim extremists since June. The Yazidis (an ancient pre-Christian community) have undergone a mass exodus from Mosul during the past year, driven away by Islamic violence and intimidation.
ChaldoAssyrian Christians comprise less than 5 percent of the population of Iraq. However, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that between October 2003 and March 2005, 36 percent of those fleeing Iraq for Syria were Christians. In 1987 the Christian population of Iraq was 1.4 million; today, it is estimated to be between 600,000 to 800,000. The Mandaean faith community adheres to pacifism, yet their numbers in Iraq have been reduced from 30,000 to 5,000 during the past three years. According to community leaders, most Iraqi Mandaeans have been murdered or fled to Jordan.
Shiites and Sunnis are in open warfare against each other in Iraq. Leaders from both sects are meeting in Mecca to endorse a call to end the sectarian bloodshed between the two groups. According to Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, if there is a call to stop shedding Muslim blood, especially during Ramadan and initiated in Mecca, it may influence actions on the ground. This could be a positive development for both sides. But, who in the Muslim community will call to end the violence against the others, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Mandaeans, Turkomen, Yazidis, and Shabak, whose blood is also flowing freely in Iraq? There are currently two Christian members of the 275 member Iraqi Parliament, a sparse number that will not be heard or heeded by Sunni and Shiite counterparts.
The London Times recently reported that the Iraq Study Group, chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker III, was prepared to recommend to President Bush the division of Iraq into three autonomous regions. The proposal was offered by Senator Joseph Biden, a member of the group. Opponents worry that dividing along ethnic lines would lead to all-out civil war.
On paper, there are already provisions for creating autonomous administrative districts for ethnic/religious minorities in Iraq. Chapter 4, Article 121, of the Iraqi Constitution, "Local Administrations," does guarantee the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights for ethnic minorities. However, Assyrian activists argue that the law stands in theory but not in practice.
The Iraqi parliament narrowly approved a law allowing the country's 18 provinces to hold referendums in order to create federal regions in Iraq. Sunnis opposed the legislation because such a division would leave them without a source for oil revenues. The move is the beginning of a process of federalism process that will likely lead to self-governing regions more autonomous from Baghdad. The ethnic and religious minorities, so vulnerable from Islamists in the larger Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish communities, should be integrated into the federal process.
The Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project noted in a policy brief earlier this year that implementing the "Local Administration" provision is a constitutional solution that promises safety, stability, and a solution to facilitate the return of tens of thousands of Assyrian Christian refugees. Michael Youash, the director of the organization, argues, "Formalizing an administrative unit for Assyrians makes them part of the federal system of Iraq, allowing them to play a moderating role…it provides those within it the opportunity to ensure their own safety, security, and ability to govern their local affairs." The group notes that the Nineveh Plains, the indigenous territory of Christians, along with other minorities such as the Yazidis and Shabak, would be a natural location for such a arrangement. The autonomous administrative unit of the Nineveh Plains would not end the attacks on minorities in the large cities of Mosul, Baghdad, or Basra. However, it may offer a place for these besieged minorities to flee for safety without giving up their national identity as Iraqis.
Western media outlets have been conditioned to call the Muslim month of fasting "the holy month of Ramadan." For many Iraqis, especially ethnic and religious minorities, Ramadan has been less than blessed this year. Murder, intimidation, rape, torture, and other forms of violence have increased during this "holy" month. Hope in Iraq's future cannot be found in the destruction of minority faith and ethnic communities. It must be discovered in the actions of those right-hearted and -minded persons who have courageously dedicated themselves to the creation of a truly pluralistic multi-ethnic/religious society in Iraq.
The fruits of Ramadan should not result in the further sowing of seeds of destruction in Iraq.
By Keith Roderick
National Review Online
Rev. Keith Roderick is Washington representative for Christian Solidarity International and secretary general of the Coalition for the Defense of Human Rights.