Iraq’s outnumbered Christians and other religious minority groups are targets of a terror campaign and are facing a dire situation where killings and rapes have become the norm, a panel of witnesses testified yesterday on Capitol Hill.
In a hearing convened by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, and four other panelists unfolded tales of horrors overtaking Christians, Yezidis (angel worshippers) and Mandaeans, members of a pacifist faith that follows the teachings of John the Baptist.
“The situation is more than desperate,” said Mr. White, who described how Christians in Baghdad have been told to convert to Islam or be killed. Hundreds of those who could not afford to flee the country are living in churches without adequate food or water, he said.
“In the past month, 36 members of my own congregation have been kidnapped,” he said. “To date, only one has been returned.”
Iraq’s eight remaining Jews, now hiding in Baghdad, are “the oldest Jewish community in the world,” he said, referring to the 597 B.C. Babylonian conquest of ancient Judah that brought the Jews to the region as captives.
“The international community has done nothing to help these people,” Mr. White said, explaining that the group is trying to emigrate to an Iraqi Jewish enclave in the Netherlands, which won’t admit them.
Michael Youash, director of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, called the situation “soft ethnic cleansing.” The “de-Christianization of Iraq” is not far off, he predicted, saying that Washington has refused to help Iraqi Christians, whose common faith with many Americans has made them loathed by Muslim radicals.
“The State Department just dismisses this as part of an overall conflict,” he said. “But Christians are being disproportionately targeted. The attacks are purely vindictive and vicious. They are meant to give a message.”
Religious minorities have no militias to protect them, Mr. Youash said. “If someone attacks a Shi’ite, there are consequences. If someone attacks a Yezidi or a Mandaean, there are none.”
Pascale Warda, president of the Iraqi Women’s Center in Baghdad, said more than 30 churches have been destroyed; priests have been fatally shot, kidnapped and beheaded; a 14-year-old boy was crucified in Basra; and Baghdad’s once-famous Christian neighborhoods have been emptied of thousands of residents.
“That’s because of fatwas issued by Islamic fundamentalists who give them three choices,” she said. “Convert to Islam, pay the jizya [a tax imposed on non-Muslims] or leave with no personal possessions.”
Suhaib Nashi, general secretary of the Mandaean Associations Union, said that in the past week alone, several Mandaean families in Baghdad were given one hour to leave their homes or be killed.
On Feb. 26, Rena Al-Zuhairy, a 20-year-old Mandaean student, went to school merely to pick up her college degree. “The last voice her mother heard was her crying over the cell phone to save her,” Mr. Nashi said. “The police force is corrupt, often helps attackers and has little to no role in protecting minorities.”
Several panelists criticized Kurdish militias in northern Iraq for joining the persecution.
“Christians flee one dictatorship only to arrive to another dictatorship,” Mr. Youash said. During the January 2005 elections, Kurdish soldiers stole many ballot boxes from areas populated by Christians and Yezidis, he added, but the U.S. government did not respond.
“Minorities learned that standing up for their right to vote only exposed them to greater persecution,” he said.