Nasiriyah, Iraq - Christians in Iraq are being exposed to a series of high-profile attacks, including the hostage situation and shootings at the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad at the end of October, as well as separate attacks on Christian homes in the Al Mansour quarter in Baghdad two weeks ago.
Pope Benedict XVI brought the world’s attention to the plight of Christians in Iraq last week, saying “ecclesial communities are praying for Christians who suffer persecution and discrimination, especially in Iraq” and adding that he hopes “religious freedom may be guaranteed to everyone all over the world.”
Yet given the increase in attacks against Christians, questions are being raised about their future in Iraq.
These attacks have instilled fear and terror in the Christian community and led many of its members to seriously consider fleeing the country. Encouragement from the government, and international calls to convince Iraqi Christians not to leave, have failed due to the lack of security in some areas of the country. According to Iraqi Christians, the message is clear that the Islamic State of Iraq, an insurgent group linked to Al Qaeda, considers all Christians in the country legitimate targets.
Christians are not newcomers to Iraq. Their history can be traced back to the Assyrians and Chaldeans, the original founders of modern-day Iraq. They have been – and still are – an integral part of Iraqi society’s fabric, coexisting peacefully with Muslims and other religious groups for years. These communities have suffered alongside one another during the hardships that Iraq has witnessed throughout its history, and Christians have been able to practice their religious traditions without incident.
Since 2003, however, a large number of Christians have left those parts of Iraq with especially poor security, such as the cities of Mosul and Baghdad, for Jordan and Syria. Christians deserve to live in peace in Iraq, and to enjoy the same rights and protections as their fellow Muslim citizens.
There are calls from inside Iraq, especially from the new Iraqi parliament that recently formed a parliamentary committee for the protection of Christians, to safeguard Christians through the help of special security forces. These same voices are also calling for financial compensation for those Christians who have already been affected by the recent attacks. And more recently, on 9 November, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki met with senior church leaders in a televised event to make it clear that top Iraqi officials are concerned about the protection of Christians in Iraq.
The high priority focus of Iraqi parliamentarians on the safety of the Christian community is a good sign and sends a clear message to Christians that the government stands behind all its citizens.
Government officials in the provinces of Najaf and Erbil have also invited Christians to come and settle in these safe havens temporarily while the government continues to battle insurgent groups, like the Islamic State of Iraq and others, that are perpetrating attacks in areas of Iraq where security concerns still run high.
Average Sunni and Shiite Iraqis are also standing in solidarity with their fellow citizens, appalled at the attacks. And, in addition to the support of neighbours, some academic institutions are doing their part. For example, the University of Kufa in the city of Najaf has invited Christian professors and students to come and study, and the Kurdistan government has officially offered to host Christian students and professors in their institutions as well.
Iraqi Christians are known for their patriotic spirit and their love for their country. As a Muslim compatriot, I am dismayed to see their lives and homes threatened and to watch them go. I hope that together, Christian and Muslim Iraqis will overcome this hurdle, as they have the many hardships that this country has witnessed throughout its long history.
Ahmed Fahad is an instructor in the department of media at the University of Dhi Qar in Iraq. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).