- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Religious tolerance is under attack. The targeting of Christians in Iraq threatens not only a historic community of hundreds of thousands of souls, but the very heart of Western democracy.

Tolerance to all religious groups was one of the founding ideas of the American way. We can take pride in having exported it to large areas of the globe. All people have benefited from this, not just minorities and people of faith. Generally, governments that refuse to extend full protection to religious identification and expression are governments that take personal liberties lightly. Experience has shown that those governments cannot be trusted to keep to agreements, making our efforts on their behalf worthless. The health of religious liberty is therefore a good test of where to commit our resources. It should be intolerable to us to have spilled the blood of thousands of American troops to stabilize a government in Iraq that cannot protect a Christian community that is almost 2,000 years old, allowing its members to be slaughtered.

The al Qaeda-linked Oct. 31 attack on Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad killed more than 60 people, including two priests. In 2004, this cathedral was among six churches attacked across Baghdad and Mosul. In recent years, Iraq’s Christians have been targeted for kidnapping, extortion, killing, bombing and assassination. Al Qaeda has declared that all Christians are its legitimate targets.

While we enjoy our holidays, Iraq’s Christians can look to a future of even greater danger. On the eve of the 2003 American-led invasion, its Christian population was nearly 1 million. Today, that number has plummeted to an estimated 350,000. More flee daily.

This “religicide” of Christians holds disturbing parallels to a previous systematic, intentional effort to eliminate another religious community from Iraq. In 1941, Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, grand mufti of Jerusalem and Adolf Hitler’s ally, used radio broadcasts to incite the population against their Jewish neighbors. For 48 hours, Jews were murdered in the streets, raped, tortured and mutilated. Iraq’s Jewish population was subjected to systematic persecution for parts of the next decade; by 1951, 100,000 were forced to leave for Israel. Staged trials led to the public hanging of Jews in the aftermath of Israel’s Six-Day War. Today, virtually nothing remains of Iraq’s once-vibrant Jewish community. Unless the world takes action, this is the fate that awaits Iraq’s Christians.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that the State Department designate Iraq as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for “egregious violations of religious freedom.” The United States, United Nations and Iraq must stop procrastinating and produce a credible action plan before it is too late.

We appeal to Americans of all faiths to involve themselves in the struggle as well. Umbrella advocacy groups including Open Doors, a ministry that serves persecuted Christians, are marshaling the power of individual citizens and using it to influence governments. These groups need our support.

Martha, a Christian in Baghdad, writes: “Christmas is coming, but peace does not exist in Iraq. Pray for us that we can have a peaceful Christmas.” We can provide essentials such as food, clothing, education, trauma counseling and other resources that the government, through lack of attention or security fears, cannot. Iraqi Christians need people to stand shoulder to shoulder with them. They must know they are not forgotten.

There is great hope that our actions can turn around this dire, desperate situation. The Soviet Union historically denied Jews the right to emigrate, study Hebrew or worship. Violators lost their jobs and places in school. In the 1980s, the United States and other Western governments pressured the Soviet Union on its abhorrent treatment of the 3 million Jews living within its borders. As a result of pressure on the Soviets to change their overall stance toward human rights, along with many other factors, the Soviet Union collapsed within just years.

Iraq’s Christians must be fully free to dwell in peace and safety in their homeland. We are disturbed by credible reports that Iraqi soldiers are informing Christians that they cannot protect them. The United States must use its influence with the new government in Iraq to see to it that the rights and security of Iraq’s minorities, including the historic Christian communities, are guaranteed on paper and in reality. This should be a front-burner concern for all Americans.

This holiday, help give the gift that keeps on giving to your Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu friends, along with members of all faith groups: the gift of religious liberty.

Yitzchok Adlerstein is the director of Interfaith Affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Carl Moeller is president of Open Doors USA, the American arm of a worldwide ministry that has supported persecuted Christians since 1955.