U.S. church officials are voicing objections to the continuing violence against Iraqi Christians, by sending letters to Defense Secretary Bob Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Advisor James Jones. But the church prelates are declining to name Islamists as the perpetrators.
"Christians in Iraq have suffered more than a dozen violent deaths so far this year, including a three-year old child in Mosul who died on March 27 after a bomb, placed next to his family's home, exploded," declared the April letter to Gates and Clinton from the National Council of Churches (NCC). Its signers included the presiding bishops of the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran denominations, United Methodist and Presbyterian (USA) officials, a Serbian Orthodox primate, and several other prominent clerics.
A letter from the U.S. Catholic bishops to Jones also focused on atrocities against Iraqi Christians in Mosul, quoting the archbishop of Kirkuk's citation of the ongoing "massacre of Iraqi Christians." The Catholic and NCC letters both asked for the U.S. to work with Iraq for the protection of Iraqi minority groups, "including Christians," according to the NCC, and "especially Christians," according to the Catholic Bishop of Albany Howard Hubbard.
An article in the British Telegraph last month called anti-Christian violence "one of the most under-reported stories of Iraq since the invasion of 2003." About 200,000 Christians have fled Iraq, reportedly accounting for about half of Iraqi refugees. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia of 2001, Iraq had over 700,000 Christians in 2000, or about 3 percent of Iraq's population. Close to half were Roman Catholic, mostly Chaldean, while the others were primarily Eastern Orthodox or adherents of various Oriental churches.
Even as Iraq's overall security situation has improved, Iraq's dwindling Christians continue to be the target of Islamist fury. The Telegraph featured the Christian community of Ainkawa, a predominantly Christian suburb of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, which is growing thanks to Christian refugees from elsewhere in Iraq. Its population has increased six-fold since 2003. Many refugees are from Mosul, where, according to the Telegraph, "young men and women [are] being stopped on the street and asked for their identity cards - and shot if their names reveal their Christian origins." An Ainkawa priest explained: "They used to ask for money first," but "now they just kill them right away."
Groups like the NCC typically do not speak too forcefully, if at all, specifically on behalf of persecuted Christians. Iraqi Christians have gained some attention among liberal church groups, as they use U.S. intervention to fault the vulnerability of Iraqi Christians. The Catholic bishops have a stronger record on religious liberty, and have previously called for religious freedom in Iraq, a call the NCC has not specifically made. Its letter to Gates and Clinton urge working "directly with Iraqis to protect minority groups" and to "encourage the preservation of religious and ethnic diversity." More forcefully, the latest Catholic letter commends the "need to provide security for all Iraqis," an implied call for potential lethal force that the pacifist inclined NCC was likely loathe to urge specifically.
At least the NCC letter omitted any direct condemnation of the U.S. presence in Iraq -- an unusual refrain. Too often, war critics have exclusively blamed the U.S. intervention in Iraq as a root cause, without dwelling on Islamists as the specific persecutors of Christians.
In a recent BBC radio interview, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams lamented that the "level of ignorance about Middle-Eastern Christianity in the West is very, very high." According to Williams, many even well informed Westerners think Middle East Christians are primarily "converts or missionaries," rather than indigenous communities that predate Islam. Of Tony Blair and George W. Bush, the archbishop surmised their Christianity was "on the whole, a very, very Western thing," and, "I don't sense that either of them had very much sense of the indigenous Christian life and history that there is in the region."
Meanwhile, a May 2 attack on Christian university students on buses near Mosul killed one and injured 188, prompting Iraqi Church leaders to issue their own nearly unprecedented join plea: "This attack is one painful episode in a series targeting Christians, especially painful since these students were defenseless," lamented the Council of the Christian Church Leaders of Iraq, which was just formed earlier this year and includes 14 of Iraq's Christian communions. "They are the hope for the future of Iraq, and as a group they have nothing to do with politics."
Gathered at an emergency meeting in Qaraqosh, the prelates appealed for Iraq's central government to "ensure law, security and safety." And they prayed for God to "give comfort to the martyrs and a quick recovery to the wounded and to protect our country from all harm, and to restore to us the gift of peace and stability."
Struggling Christians in Iraq, as throughout the Middle East, must tread very carefully. Western Christians can be more explicit about the threat and its primary perpetrators. That even the National Council of Churches, with its mostly liberal dominated Protestant communions, is joining the U.S. Catholic bishops to advocate on behalf of persecuted Iraqi Christians is progress. But will they ever name the persecutors?
By Mark Tooley