Who could have known in 2003 – the year the U.S. invaded Iraq – that the country’s Christians would be a focal point of the war’s discussion eight years later? U.S. policymakers couldn’t. Procedures set in place to protect religious minorities were characterized by careless oversight, and at times, by outright neglect. Today, the sad realization is that years of failure to protect vulnerable Iraqi Christians has resulted in the near extinction of one of the oldest and most vibrant Christian communities in world.
|Jowaneh Benjamin, the Iraq war would cost her everything|
The U.S. government had received numerous cries for help. In July 2010, Christian leaders from Iraq visited Capitol Hill to beg for the preservation of their communities. They came as representatives of a newly established council of churches. Putting aside denominational differences, the council was formed by the common belief that together they could best withstand persecution. At the time of the visit, some estimated that only 400,000 Christians remained in the country, a fraction of the 1.4 million who were there before the war.
“We have no militia. We have no way to defend ourselves. We are sitting ducks. And, when we are attacked, no one is prosecuted. How can we survive?” the head of the council told a congressman’s office. However, pleas and policy recommendations fell on deaf ears and the Christian council grew void of hope. “Nothing is going to change,” one council member told me. “Who is concerned about Christians when the U.S. is trying to win a war?”
On October 31, only three months after the Iraqi clergy’s visit to Washington, Christians would pay the ultimate price for government inaction. In a violent siege of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Baghdad, Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists massacred more than fifty worshippers. The attack was the worst since the war’s beginning and triggered a series of attacks on Christians.
Consider the days following the massacre:
* November 10, thirteen bomb raids on Christian homes in Baghdad kill six.
* November 16, gunmen in northern Iraq murder two men in a Christian home.
* November 17, a bomb wired to a Christian’s vehicle in Mosul kills a man and his 6-year-old daughter.
* November 22, militants shoot two Christian brothers dead inside their vehicle workshop. That same day, an elderly Christian woman is found strangled in her home.
* December 5, gunmen murder an elderly couple in Baghdad.
* December 30, a bomb left at the doorstep of an elderly Christian couple’s home detonates when they answer the doorbell.
* January 15, a Christian doctor is shot point blank in the head while on duty at a hospital in Mosul. The goal of these attacks: the complete annihilation of Christians from the country.
While it was too late for the U.S. to correct its mistakes, the U.S. could no longer remain silent as the terror unfolded. On January 20 – eight years too late – a congressional hearing was held in Washington seeking a solution to protect Iraqi Christians. An Iraqi nun, testifying at the hearing, repeated the same pleas and recommended the same policies as the church leaders who visited Washington long before her.
“The Iraqi Christian community has been very patient working towards a hope for the new Iraq that will provide a peaceful and secure environment… Yet, year after year, our situation has deteriorated… The people of Iraq need the U.S. to fulfill its moral obligation to help repair the damage that the war has caused.”
For Jowaneh Benjamin, the Iraq war would cost her everything. Driving home from work one evening, Jowaneh’s daughters Ebtisam and Enas’ vehicle was ambushed by Muslim militants. The young women were targeted because of their Christian faith. One was yanked onto the street and shot eleven times. The other was murdered in the backseat.
The grief was unbearable for Jowaneh. “I wish I had died and not my daughters… It should have been me… It should have been me…” Jowaneh’s husband died a few days later from a broken heart over his daughters’ deaths.
Jowaneh soon decided it was no longer safe to live in Iraq. She took her remaining daughter Mariam and fled to a refugee camp in Syria. After two long years, Jowaneh was finally granted immigration to the United States. She is currently resettling in Chicago.
Nina Shea, the vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), proposed concrete steps to begin a new era of policy to protect Iraqi Christians. “[USCIRF] recommends that the U.S. and Iraqi governments – in consultation with Christian and other religious minority communities – upgrade security, identifying vulnerable targets for terrorists and implementing a plan for Iraqi military protection of these areas… we have a special obligation to render our assistance while our presence remains in that nation. The transition from dictatorship to political democracy must include the protection of religious freedom.”
Until today, the U.S.’s war strategy to stamp out sectarian violence never involved protecting Iraq’s Christians. Leaving Christians out of the U.S. counterinsurgency equation has proven decisive. To continue to ignore the warnings will mean nothing less than the complete annihilation of Christianity from the region, and the U.S. will have nobody to blame but themselves.
Aidan Clay is the Middle East Regional Manager for International Christian Concern (ICC), a Washington, DC-based human rights organization that exists to help persecuted Christians worldwide by providing awareness, advocacy, and assistance (www.persecution.org). Aidan is a graduate from Biola University. Prior to joining ICC, Aidan worked with Samaritan’s Purse in South Sudan and has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and Africa. He currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya. For more information, contact Aidan Clay at: firstname.lastname@example.org