The Christian Exodus From Iraq
from the May 19, 2009 eNews issue
The body of a Christian boy was discovered last week in a village outside Mosul, his body riddled with bullets. Five-year-old Tony Adwar Shawell was kidnapped on May 5 and was later executed by a group that had demanded $50,000 for his ransom. Just a week earlier, on April 27th, three Christians were shot to death in their homes in Kirkuk. These are just some of the latest attacks against Christians in Iraq, where some of the oldest Christian communities on earth are disappearing in response to lawlessness and religiously motivated violence.
According to the last Iraqi census, there were about 1.4 million Christians in Iraq in 1987. Today, the US State Dept estimates that number has dropped to around 550,000, and the German Catholic relief organization Kirche in Not suggests that the number is even lower, perhaps 400,000. In a country of about 28 million, that's quite a small minority. Despite (or because of) their small numbers, the peaceful Assyrian Christian community has been energetically targeted for attack in the wake of the relative anarchy since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Richard Hrair Dekmejian, a USC professor who was born in Syria and studies the Middle East, blames Islamic fundamentalism for much of the violence. "These are pre-Muslim communities in Iraq, and they're being uprooted en masse," he said.
Christians did not have full rights under Saddam Hussein, but there was relative stability in the country. And while Christians were not able to take jobs in the military or security fields or high levels of government, they were often well educated and became doctors or engineers or civil servants and made up a significant portion of Iraq's middle class.
With the rise of violence directed at them, hundreds of thousands of Iraq's Christians have fled to other countries and usually aren't worried about going back. Many have relocated to Syria or Jordan where they wait in refugee camps. Others have emigrated to the United States or South America.
The rise in Islamic conservatism in Iraq has fueled the Christian exodus. "I hope to leave for any other place in the world," said Sheeran Surkon, a 27-year-old Iraqi woman. In 2004, Surkon escaped from Iraq to Syria after her life was threatened, her father disappeared, and somebody blew up her beauty shop. She has no interest in returning to Iraq. "How can I live there as a woman?" she asked.
Islamic fundamentalism is not the only motivation for attacking Christians. Greed is also a problem. Christians are considered wealthy, or are often believed to have wealthy relatives in other countries, and are regularly kidnapped for ransoms. Families have complained that when they pay the ransom money to the kidnappers, they are seen by US officials as supporting terrorists.
Even the liberal publication The Huffington Post has printed an article on the shameful treatment of the Middle East's Christians, saying, "No community today is so targeted by violent thugs for no reason other than sheer bigotry as are the Christians of Iraq. They have had their churches bombed and their priests kidnapped and murdered and yet they persevere with dignity and passive resistance. The Christian community in Iraq do not take to armed conflict and violence against the criminals who want to drive them out..."
Christians are not only leaving Iraq, however. Across the Middle East, believers are leaving historically Christian areas to escape persecution and violence. In fact, the success of Christian education contributes greatly to their ability to get out. According to CNN: "For generations, church-run schools in the Holy Land have turned out Christians who are well-educated, prosperous, and fluent in Western languages. A 2005 study in Bethlehem, where the Christian percentage of the population has fallen from 80 to 20 percent, concluded that Christians' middle-class status and higher education were the most important contributors to their emigration."
Some observers note that Arab Christians have had influence on the social, political and economic affairs of the Middle East, despite their minority status. If they leave, peace and stability might just leave with them.
While thousands of atrocities have been committed against Iraq's Christians, the death of little five-year-old Tony Adwar Shawell is particularly tragic; it demonstrates the level of the horror and depravity being faced in Iraq.
Jonathan Racho, the International Christian Concern regional manager for Africa and the Middle East, commented, "This latest unconscionable act indicates the deteriorating situation for Christian minorities in Iraq. It is also a clear sign of the danger that all Iraqi Christians face in the country. We call upon the Iraqi and the United States government to put an end to the systematic extermination of Christians from Iraq."
When President Barack Obama addresses the Muslim world on June 4, it would be appropriate for him to speak out in defense of the Middle East's Christian communities.