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Religion and Society

Irak: the Foreign Roots of Persecutions against Christians

Erica Hunter

Interview to Prof. Erica Hunter by Maria Laura Conte



ML. C.: How should we view anti-Christian persecution in Iraq? What is behind it?



E. H.:


The anti-Christian persecution that is currently taking place in Iraq has only really arisen since mid-2006. Prior to that time, the Iraqi clergy with whom I maintain contacts were not appreciably worried about their relations with Islam. In fact, they considered the activities of American evangelists more threatening. What has brought about the turn about of events in 2006, which saw the purging of Dora, a suburb of Baghdad, which had a substantial Christian population is difficult to say. I am told that slogans written on the walls at Dora used to say 'Dora is for the Christians and Sunnis only' i.e. the Shi'i were unwelcome. In mid-2006 slogans began to appear saying 'Dora is for the Sunni'. As we all know, the majority of Christian families were driven out of their homes.


It is extremely difficult to track the activities of the insurgency groups who have perpetrated these purgings and killings. They are chameleon-like: form, disbandon and reform with no predictable pattern. Insurgency groups will change affiliation, if it serves their purpose and ultimate goals, although it is important to realise that these are not static either. For Instance, the 20th Islamic Brigade, which was notoriously anti-American, changed its mind a couple of years ago, and linked up with the U.S. Forces, in a bid to gain ascendancy over al-Qaida. This volte was not seen as 'going back on principles', but one that pragmatic and would help justify their gaining power and control.


The recent purgings in Mosul of its ancient Christian population have been attributed either to Sunni insurgency groups or to Kurdish militia-men. With the forthcoming elections and the Kurdish penchant to extend its territories of influence much further south than has ever been traditionally known, it is widely held that the purging of the Christians was to reinforce those claims. Other communities, including the Yezidees and Turcomans, have also been subject to considerable pressure from the Kurds.


ML. C.: Are the reasons for the current situation due to recent history (post-Saddam), or are the roots deeper, running further back into the past?



E. H.:


Very much of the current situation rests on factors beyond Iraq's boundaries. The country lies between Iran and Saudi Arabia and their interests are being acted out today in Iraq. Both countries are thought to be supplying insurgency groups with financial sustenance. The larger context is between Sunni and Shia, with their attendant supporting groups, as well as with the amibitions of the Kurds. The Christians, as a powerless, ineffectual minority have no place in this battle for the division of power. One might think then that they would remain beyond the remitt of insurgency groups, but hand in hand with their bids for power is the Islamicization of Iraq and the notion that 'others' are not part of the emerging Iraqi society. There may also be a backlash against the position of the minority groups under the Ba'athists, where they lived with some degree of security. The Christians were not persecuted for their religious beliefs. Of course, minoirty groups were per se loyal to the Ba'athists. Had they not been, I have no doubt that Saddam would have been as ruthless with them, as he was with the Shi'a and the Kurds.


ML. C.: How important are the divisions among Christian Churches in the current situation?



E. H.:


The theological divisions of the various Churches are not significant. However there are ethno-linguistic fault-lines that distinguish the communities and these need to be taken into account. The divisions between the Syrian Orthodox and Church of the East date back to the first millennium CE, but the origins of the ethno-linguistic divisions [which are actually more potent today] can be placed in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries. The Chaldaeans are the largest group of Christians in Iraq today. They are basically Arabic-speaking reserving Syriac for the liturgy. The large majority, until the mid-twentieth century, lived in Mosul and did so for centuries. They saw themselves as Arab, epitomised by the comment of Tariq Aziz, former Deputy Prime Minister, that he was an Arab Christian. The concept of Arab was inherent in the Ba'athist philosophy, but his self-definition also relfected the identity of the urban, Mosul Chaldaean family from which he hailed. By contrast, the Assyrians, aka members of the Church of the East , whose territories were traditionally in Kurdistan and the Hakkari are Neo-Aramaic speakers. Of course they also do speak Arabic, but do not consider it as their mother-tongue. Until the opening decades ofthe twentieth century they lived a life that was tribally organised and not dissimilar to that of the Kurds amongst whom they dwelt. Today there is a robust discussion about identity, with the Assyrians claiming a 'nationality' over and above a religious identity, and attempting to carve out a homeland on the Nineveh plain. The Chaldaeans, on the other hand, see themselves as Iraqi by nationality. There is a disturbing tendency in some quarters to equate the term 'Arab' with 'Muslim' and eschew its usage as applicable to Christians, even though there is incontrovertable evidence that substantial numbers of Arabs were Christianised in the first millennium CE, particularly in the southern reaches of Mesopotamia. The various ethno-linguistic strands add of course to the richness of the history of Christianity in Iraq.


ML. C.: How much does the Kurdish-Arab divide and affect the situation?



E. H.:


The Kurdish-Arab divide directly affects the Christian communities, in terms of its affiliation and identity. The above debate over ethno-linguistic identity taps into the Kurdish-Arab divide. It may well be encouraged by Kurdish officials who are anxious to spread the notion of 'Kurdishness' into areas that have traditionally never been Kurdish in order to bolster their territorial bids. I consider that this bitter divide, which has at its heart, the power struggle between Kurds and Arabs to be one of the most debilitating factors affecting the Christian communities in Iraq: leaving them fractured and splintered.


ML. C. : Some Arab media suggest that anti-Christian persecution is connected to the issue of minority representation in the upcoming elections to renew provincial council. What do you think?



E. H.:


It is claimed that the recent purgings in Mosul were instigated by the Kurds in order to cleanse the area of peoples who, traditionally upheld themselves as Arab and were resistant to adopting or assuming Kurdish identities. Again, these events show the ramifications of the Kurd-Arab divide upon the Christians.


What can be said about the decision taken by Iraq's parliament to give the Christian minority only one seat out of 440, and this despite a government promise, as suggested by a UN proposal, to guarantee them 13 seats?


This decision at best shows a scant disregard for the democratic rights of minority communities and at worst indicates the growing Islamicization of Iraq. The allocation of one seat does not represent the numbers of the community in any proportional sense. The model adopted would seem to be that of the Iranian Constitution where the Christians {and other minorities) have one seat. It can simply be described as tokenism, giving no real voice to the communities.


ML. C.: Looking at the past, at Iraq's history, what role have the country's Christian communities played? Have they carved out a place for themselves; taken on a special task in the country? Has the majority changed its attitude towards this minority, towards Christians that is? If so, how and why?



E. H.:


I cannot but stress the tremendous role which the Christian communities have played in Iraq down the centuries. The first communities were already established in the second century CE. and were a substantial - and influential - minority in the Sassanid era. The first comings of Islam into Mesopotamia were through Hira, renowned by later Islamic historians as a major centre of Christianity. One may speculate on the influence of Hiran Christianity on formative Islamic thought, especially in the Shi'a heartland of Najaf and Kerbala, as well as Kufa which grew directly out of Hira. In the eighth century, the transmission of Greek philosophy to Arabic was largely achieved through the aegis of Christian translators. In the Mongol period, the Christians also played a major role: paradoxically some of the Khans' wives belonged to the Church of the East which had proselytised in Central Asia and China since the seventh century. More recently, in the twentieth century, the Christians have contributed to Iraq developing as a modern nation, excelling above all in health care as doctors and thus continuing a tradition of medical expertise that was already known in the eighth century. If people are interested to learn about the major contribution made to the history of Iraq by its Christian communities I can recommend the book by Suha Rassam, Christianity of Iraq (Gracewing: 2005). Dr. Rassam, is not only a physician, but also a former student of mine and a Chaldaean Christian from Mosul.


The current purgings and killings of Christians is largely at the hands of insurgency groups, anarchic elements that are partially composed of Iraqi but also include outsiders. They impose their politics of fear in order to gain power. I do not think that the ordinary Iraqi, i.e. the 'man in the street' has notably changed his/her attitude to Christians. They may, of course, avoid them, since Christians are a target of insurgency. Economics may also play a part, since Christians are perceived to be wealthy and with many having relatives in the West, they are a source of income. The kidnapping industry is fuelled not only by political motivation, but also by economic measures. In the desperate situation that is Iraq, people will target others simply to make money. The situation in Iraq today is one of anarchy. The government in Baghdad is virtually ineffectual, more paper than power. It is unable to curb the insurgency groups that have inflitrated the Iraqi Police Services and other security forces. Until the insurgency groups can be brought to heel, dominant and vocal groups can flourish. However, I have heard of acts of kindness and support emanating from individual Muslims, and this is gratifying.


Ml. C.: What are the possible solutions that might end the persecution of Christians in Iraq and stop their exodus from the country?



E. H.:


The answer to this is complex. Until the insurgency groups can be brought to heel - and this is, as I have said above, very difficult since they receive funding from abroad, the violence will continue. One of the important factors, I believe, lies in economic recovery. Insurgency groups offer employment to young men who otherwise have no prospect. Some individuals are indeed idealistic, but I consider that many - were there the chance of a stable employment - would turn their back on such activities. Secondly the power play between the Shia and Sunni, Arab and Kurd needs to be dismantled. In this scenario, the minorities have no role and are powerless. The number of Mandaeans is only now around a couple of thousand from a pre 2003 figure of 50,000. The Christians are the largest minority community in Iraq, but in relative terms their numbers are small. They cannot compete in the power-stakes. At best , they are manipulated for political ends, as is happening with the Kurds, at worst, they are a viewed as a blot to the Islamicization of Iraq that is the reality of the agenda of many insurgency groups. In short, I see no solution in the short term. I believe that it will take decades to resolve the present crisis that has besett Iraq. The country that will one day emerge will certainly be a very different socio-religious construct than that prior to 2003.


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