Iraqi Christianity has suffered another catastrophic blow that is likely to hasten the church's wholesale flight from the country: Last evening, al-Qaeda suicide bombers laid siege to Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad during Sunday Mass while 120 local Chaldean Catholics were worshiping inside. The Washington Post reports that 42 Iraqi worshipers were killed, along with seven Iraqi rescue commandos. Among the dead are two priests, Father Wasim Sabieh and Father Thaier Saad Abdal, while a third, Father Qatin, has a bullet lodged in his head and is in uncertain condition. This is only the latest in a series of direct attacks on Iraqi churches that began in 2004.
Joseph Kassab, executive director of the Chaldean Federation of America, wrote to me that "since Iraq has no government, we are calling for the international community to intervene in protecting and saving the indigenous people of Iraq, the Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Community." He emphasizes, "Things are deteriorating very fast in Iraq, our people are left with no choice but to flee because they are losing hope and there is no serious actions taken to protect them as of today."
Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East, another persecuted Christian church with an ancient presence in Iraq, sent a report as well. Apart from the widely covered information that the terrorists demanded prison releases, he documents (with two links) another, directly religious motive that enraged al-Qaeda: the conversion of Muslim girls into another Christian denomination in another country.
The terrorists belong to Al-Qaieda organization in Iraq called: Islamic State of Iraq.They were demanding according to the Iraqi sources the release of their colleagues in Iraq and Egypt. A statement by this terrorist group and circulated on the internet in their websites is warning and demanding the release of the Muslim girls from Christian background who are, according to the statement, prisoners in Egyptian Coptic Church monasteries. The statement is giving 48 hours warning time to release those girls or they will explode the church. The statement, as other cases, is fill [sic] of threats against infidels everywhere.
Christians remain the largest non-Muslim minority in Iraq, but church leaders express a real fear that the light of the faith in Iraq -- which is said to have been kindled personally by Thomas, one of Jesus' Twelve Apostles -- could soon be extinguished. Iraq's Christian population has been reduced by as much as half; adherents have been driven out by brutal terrorist attacks and government marginalization. Iraq's other non-Muslim religions -- the much smaller groups of Mandeans (followers of John the Baptist), Yizidis (an ancient angel-centered religion), Bahai's, and Jews -- are also being forced out, and in some cases, their unique languages and cultures may not survive in exile.
Religious persecution in Iraq is so "egregious" that the country has now been included by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on a recommended short list of "Countries of Particular Concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act, alongside the likes of Iran and China. No group in Iraq, Muslim or non-Muslim, has been spared massive and appalling religiously motivated violence; however, as the independent federal commission found, the one-two punch of extremist ruthlessness and deep governmental discrimination now threatens the "very existence" of Iraq's Christian churches (some of whom still pray in Aramaic, the language of Jesus of Nazareth) and Iraq's communities of Mandeans and Yizidis, which are even older. As last night's attack again shows, these smallest minorities are not simply caught in the middle. They are being fiercely targeted for their faith.
As I have written before, this raises an urgent question for the West: Without the experience of living alongside Christians and other non-Muslims at home, what would prepare the Muslim Middle East to peacefully coexist with the West?
Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.