Home > Iraq Crisis, 2003-2014

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U.S. invasion of Iraq brings period of persecution for Christians

Operation Iraqi Freedom combat operations concluded on May 1, 2003, however what followed afterwards would lead Iraq’s religious and ethnic minority communities into their darkest history. As the Iraq War carried on, chaos and sectarian violence became widespread throughout the country, as well as the extreme persecution of Iraqi Christians. The persecution of Christians, however, was often buried within the larger humanitarian crisis in Iraq. As a result during the conflict little action was taken to protect Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities. This directly contributed to their persecution and exodus from the country.

Man mourns in an Iraqi Christian church (photo credit: UNPO)

Man mourns in an Iraqi Christian church. Photo credit: UNPO.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq became victim to powerful and dangerous Islamic radical groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. These groups began the ethnic and religious cleansing of 1.4 million Assyrians in Iraq, as well as other religious and ethnic minorities. Approximately more than 1 million unarmed Christian civilians were driven out of their homeland by these Islamists. Due to this persecution, Iraq is ranked third after North Korea and Somalia as the most dangerous place for Christians.

Iraq is ranked third after North Korea and Somalia as the most dangerous place for Christians.

Today, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has continued this genocide which began at the onset of the U.S. invasion by similar Islamic radical groups. It is estimated ISIS has directly contributed to the displacement of 200,000 Iraqi Christians. In August 2014, approximately 500,000 Iraqi Christians were in Iraq, however after ISIS began its cleansing less than 300,000 remain.

Religious and ethnic diversity of Iraq not protected

Funeral Procession of Procession of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho who was kidnapped in Mosul

Funeral Procession of Procession of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho

Human rights expert Nina Shea noted in 2003 that religious freedom and a pluralistic Iraq were not high priorities for the U.S. administration. She reached the conclusion that the U.S. “diffidence on religious freedom suggests Washington’s relative indifference to this basic human right.”

The U.S. administration since 2003 is believed to have avoided addressing the plight of Christians for fear of playing into the ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ narrative. During the Bush administration, intervening in Christian attacks was seen as playing part in ‘‘sectarian’’ issues. As a result targeted violence and mass Christian exodus remained unaddressed. ‘‘One of the blind spots of the Bush administration was the inability to grapple with this as a direct byproduct of the invasion,’’ says Timothy Shah, the associate director of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project.

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Assyrian women mourn the dead from an October 31, 2010 attack on an evening mass in Baghdad

As a result, extremists in Iraq targeted Christians and other religious and ethnic minorities, who they viewed as apostates. Oftentimes churches and church leaders, as well as civilians, were targeted.

“Since 2003, we’ve lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches were bombed.”-Bashar Warda, a Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, on the extreme violence against Christians in Iraq

Rise of insurgent armed groups

Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein, insurgent armed groups composed largely of Sunni men, who had been disenfranchised by the invasion, emerged in opposition to the occupying forces and the largely Shi’a-dominated Iraqi government. These organizations included Sunni-dominated armed groups such as the Al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad group, later Al-Qaeda in Iraq and then the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006. These groups often violently targeted Christian and other fellow minorities in Iraq.

A 2010 Mosul bus bombing targeted Assyrian Christian students leaving more than 70 injured

A 2010 Mosul bus bombing targeted Assyrian Christian students leaving more than 70 injured

 

Church leaders reported that Christians have experienced kidnappings, extortion, rape, beheadings, bombings, harassment, crucifixion, and forced displacement from Islamic extremist groups since 2003. Many Christians relocated, changing neighborhoods or even cities as a result. Many families left cities such as Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul for refuge outside of Iraq, or to Ainkawa, a small suburb of Erbil, a Kurdish city in the north. Mosul, once a hub of Christianity in Iraq for 1,700 years  and one of the oldest communities of its kind in the world, saw numbers dwindle from 30,000 to just a few thousand after 2003. To date, almost all of the Christian community of Mosul has fled ISIS since August 2014.

Major attacks on Christians

Christian clergy were in particular targeted as part of a campaign against Christians. In January 2005, Archbishop George Yasilious in Mosul was kidnapped and later released. In October 2006, a Syrian Orthodox priest, Fr. Paulos Eskander, was abducted and beheaded. He was kidnapped by an unknown Islamic group in Mosul and his ransom of $250,000 or $350,000 was demanded. He was beheaded several days later. Only one year later, a bombing in October 2006 at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Baghdad killed two people after a Sunday Mass. This bombing was the inspiration for the creation of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council.

Iraqi Christian mourns Our Lady of Salvation attack in 2010. Photo credit: NYT

Iraqi Christian mourns Our Lady of Salvation attack in 2010. Photo credit: NYT

Another notable murder of a Christian clergyman occurred in February 2008. Archbishop Paulos Rahho’s vehicle was attacked after he finished praying the Stations of the Cross in Mosul. Rahho, wounded but alive, was able to us his cell phone from the trunk of his abductors’ car. He called his church to tell them not to pay his ransom, saying he “believed that this money would not be paid for good works and would be used for killing and more evil actions.” Two weeks later his body was found in a shallow grave.

“He ‘believed that this money would not be paid for good works and would be used for killing and more evil actions.'”-Church officials on Archbishop Paulos Rahho refusing his church to pay ransom

The 2010 Our Lady of Salvation Church attack marked the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began here in 2003. The congregation was attacked during mass by grenades, bullets and suicide vests, leaving 58 Christians killed by an affiliate of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It is claimed that the gunmen made justifications for the attack saying that all Christians were infidels, thus it is permitted to kill them, and the killing was in retaliation for the threatened burning of the Koran by an American pastor and the alleged imprisonment of two supposed Muslim women converts in Egypt.

Since June 2004, it is estimated that 119 churches have been attacked or bombed since: 45 in Baghdad, 64 in Mosul, 8 in Kirkuk and 1 in Ramadi.

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