Islamic chauvinism drives Christians out

NON-MUSLIMS are seen as Western surrogates.

SCREAMING “Kill! Kill! Kill!”, suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant organisation connected to al-Qa’ida in Iraq, stormed a Chaldean church in Baghdad on Sunday. A spokesman later claimed they did so “to light the fuse of a campaign against Iraqi Christians”.

The assailants’ more immediate grievance seems related to a demand that two Muslim women, allegedly held against their will in Egyptian Coptic monasteries, be released.

When Iraqi forces attempted to free about 120 parishioners who had been taken hostage, the terrorists – who had already shot dead some of the churchgoers – detonated their suicide vests and grenades, slaughtering at least half the congregation.

But the massacre in Baghdad is only the most spectacular example of mounting discrimination and persecution of the native Christian communities of Iraq and Iran, which are now in the middle of a huge exodus as they confront a rising tide of Islamic militancy and religious chauvinism sweeping the region.

Christians are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in both Iraq and Iran, with roots in the Middle East that date back to the earliest days of the faith. Some follow the Apostolic Orthodox Armenian Church. Others subscribe to the 2000-year-old Syriac tradition represented mainly by the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and by Aramaic speakers, widely known as Assyrians, in both Iraq and Iran.

Iraqi and Iranian Muslim leaders claim that religious minorities in their countries are protected.

In September, former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reassured the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East that religious minorities were respected and safeguarded in Iran.

Yet members of Iran’s Christian denominations, like their Jewish, Zoroastrian, Mandean and Baha’i counterparts, do not feel safe. A member of the National Council of Churches in Iran, Firouz Khandjani, lamented in August: “We are facing the worst persecution” in many decades, including loss of employment, homes, liberties, and lives.

“We fear losing everything.”

In Iraq, Chaldean and Assyrian Christian communities have witnessed increasing violence by militant Muslims against their neighbourhoods, children and religious sites since the US invasion. Even pastors are not safe – two died in Sunday’s Baghdad bombing and many have been killed by Sunni and Shia Iraqis since 2003.

In Iran, other clergymen, including members of the Armenian, Protestant and Catholic churches, have been arrested, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured or even summarily executed during the past three decades. “Many Christians from Mosul have been systematically targeted and are no longer safe there,” said Laurens Jolles, a UNHCR representative, in 2008, after Chaldean women were raped while their men, including Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, were tortured and killed in warnings to Christians to abandon their homes and their livelihoods.

In Iran, Christian clerics have been targeted – Tateos Mikaelian, senior pastor of St John’s Armenian Evangelical Church in Tehran, was killed in 1994, as was Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, head of the evangelical Assemblies of God Church.

Why Christians? Of the many justifications offered by al-Qa’ida and other fanatical groups in Iraq, and by hard-line mullahs in Iran, one is repeated most often: these indigenous Christians are surrogates for Western “crusaders”.

As early as 1970, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa accusing Christians in Iran of “working with American imperialists and oppressive rulers to distort the truths of Islam, lead Muslims astray and convert our children”.

Christians have often made efforts to prove their loyalty, as when Iranian Assyrians wrote to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in September denouncing American Christians who wished to burn Korans as “enemies of God”.

But the roots of Christian decline in the Middle East date back centuries. The 16th century heralded the forced Shi’ification of Iran. The early 20th century saw pogroms against Armenian, Assyrian and Greek Christians in the Ottoman Empire and northwestern Iran.

Under the Pahlavi shahs, Assyrians, Armenians, Jews, Zoroastrians and Baha’is regained some of their rights and came to represent the modernising elements of 20th-century society.

But the Islamic Revolution of 1979 undercut all that. The population of non-Muslims in Iran has dropped by two-thirds or more since 1979. From Iran, these groups flee to Turkey and India – often at risk to life and limb through the violence-ridden border regions of Iraq and Pakistan.

The number of Assyrian Christians in Iran has dwindled from about 100,000 in the mid-1970s to about 15,000 today, even as the overall population of the country has swelled from 38 million to 72 million.

In Iraq, Christians are fleeing in droves. UN statistics indicate that 15 per cent of all Iraqi refugees in Syria are of Christian background, although they represented only 3 per cent of the population when US troops entered in 2003.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that between 300,000 and 400,000 Christians have been forced out of Iraq since 2003. And Christians have left because the message from Sunni militants and Shia ayatollahs is clear: You have no future here.

There is now an alarming possibility there will be no significant Christian communities in Iraq or Iran by century’s end. Christian schools, communal halls, historical sites and churches are being appropriated by national and provincial governments, government-sponsored Muslim organisations and radical Islamist groups. Economic and personal incentives are offered to those who adopt Islam.

Last month, the Vatican convened a major summit to find ways of mitigating this crisis, noting that “Christians deserve to be recognised for their invaluable contributions . . . their human rights should always be respected, including freedom of worship and freedom of religion”.

There is a glimmer of hope. On August 5, the US Senate adopted Resolution 322 expressing concern for religious minorities in Iraq. The quick, though failed, attempt by Iraqi forces last weekend to rescue the Christian hostages appears to have been in response to such US pressure – no official Iraqi interventions had occurred in previous attacks.

In Iran, however, the persecution of Christians continues unabated. Two Protestant pastors, arrested in post-presidential election crackdowns, face the death penalty. An Assyrian pastor was arrested and tortured in February and faces trial.

The Senate resolution noted that “threats against the smallest religious minorities jeopardise a diverse, pluralistic and free society”, words applicable in full measure to Iran as well. Will Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government heed this call? It’s doubtful.

But one thing’s for certain: if the world doesn’t champion religious freedom openly and vigorously, he won’t have to.

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