Monday, March 28, 2005

There is another war going on today in Iraq about which little is heard. It is a war against Christianity. Christians in Iraq are a comparatively small, windling minority: fewer than 800,000, merely 3 percent out of a population of 26 million.

Though Iraqi Christians are a minuscule minority, they suffering unrelenting Muslim persecution. The Iraqi Christian population, once was more than 15 percent, decreases daily due to emigration to safety in Western countries. Muslim persecution in Iraq of Christians was highlighted in January when Archbishop Basil Georges Casmoussa in Mosul was kidnapped. Cooler Muslim heads must have prevailed because he was released the next day.

Iraqi Christians have historically played an important role in the country. Tariq Aziz, 69, now in coalition custody, and once a familiar face on Western TV, is a Chaldean Catholic. During Saddam’s dictatorship, he was Iraqi foreign minister and later deputy prime minister and at one time was even targeted in an assassination attempt by Iranian Islamic terrorists.

It is a paradox that during the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, Iraqi Christians “enjoyed considerable religious freedom,” according to Nimrod Raphaeli, senior analyst with the Middle East Media Research Institute. Successors to the dictator Abdul Karim Qassem, assassinated in 1963, employed Christian women, who all spoke excellent English, as I then noted. They were practicing Chaldean Catholics under guidance of a Belgian priest who conducted his office without let or hindrance.

All that has changed. Last August, five churches in Baghdad and four in Mosul were hit in a single day’s attacks that killed 12 people. In October, five churches in Baghdad were hit on the first day of the Muslim month of Ramadan. In November, eight people were killed in two church bombings. It is considered justifiable homicide to kill a Muslim convert to Christianity.

Iraqi Christians are now specifically targeted by the Islamists because they allegedly collaborate with what is called the “invading crusading army” or simply because they are labeled infidels and therefore fair game. Iraqi Christians report destruction of Christian businesses, harassment of Christian university students and especially Christian women, who are forced to wear the veil.

The Christian “collaboration” allegation is true in that because most Christian schools give English a high priority in the language curriculum, the multinational forces naturally have hired Christians for office work, especially translation.

Because of discrimination against Iraqi Christians in the public sector and the military, Christian businessmen have entered the service and retail sectors of the economy, which included liquor stores. Islam bans alcohol so the liquor retail business was taken over by Christians to sell to their co-religionists. They have prospered because, says Mr. Raphaeli’s report, many Muslims ignore the Koran ban on alcohol. In fact large sums garnered by the Saddam regime under the “oil for food program” were used by Saddam to import fine wines and liquors for himself and his cronies.

With the fall of Saddam, Islamists ordered the Christian liquor store owners to close shops. Islamists gutted the liquor stores when their owners failed to shut down. Some recalcitrant owners were shot and killed. Christians have complained that, after being driven out of the liquor business, Muslims moved in to their stores and continued selling liquor publicly.

Christian Iraqi university students are hassled by Muslims. At the University of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest, 1,500 Christian students, in fear for their lives, have stopped attending classes.

Fearing attack, Christians celebrated last Christmas in their homes, not in churches. In fact, priests avoided the traditional midnight Mass and told their parishioners to stay away from churches at Christmas time out of concern for their safety. Said Patriarch Emanuel III, the Patriarch of Babylon:

“As leaders of the Christian communities in Iraq, we are pained by what has happened to our country. There is destruction of our people, resources, buildings and churches. We grieve over the tragic death of many of our children and the injuries and psychological shocks suffered by others.”

This is the unreported war in Iraq, a war which will go on until not a single Christian, nor a single Christian church, remains in Iraq. And it is a war supported by Muslim clerics, whether Sunni, Shi’ite, or whatever sect.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

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