Monday, November 01, 2010

The continuing tragedy of Iraq's Christians.

Last night, I received word of a tragic hostage crisis at a church in Baghdad that has left at least 58 people dead and 75 wounded. The crisis began when Islamic militants stormed into the Sayidat al-Nejat Syrian Catholic Cathedral during the Sunday liturgy, killing a priest and taking much of the congregation hostage. After a four-hour standoff, Iraqi security forces launched a raid that freed the hostages - albeit at substantial human cost, as revealed by this Guardian report on the tragedy:
Ferocious gunfire heralded the raid – almost on the captain's cue – followed by three loud booms, which security officials at the scene said were caused by terrorists detonating explosives strapped to their body as troops advanced.

A second burst of shooting followed the crack of sniper rounds from nearby rooftops. Eerie silence lasting around 5 minutes then followed, before a soldier called frantically for an ambulance – a fleet of which had been kept waiting about 500 metres away.

For the next forty minutes, a cacophony of screeching ambulances carried away the dead and injured. Walking wounded and survivors without injuries stumbled past them through the mayhem.

Among them were two elderly ladies in their blood-stained Sunday best, several children trembling too much to walk and a traumatised elderly couple searching in vain for their priest.

The priest they call Father Rafael is believed to have survived, but his colleague, Father Wissam, is believed to have been killed.

Bewildered and frantic, the survivors collapsed onto a median strip crying for telephones to call their families.

"I am going to leave Iraq with my family tomorrow," said [freed hostage] Bassam, an employee of an internet company. "Why am I here?" he wailed. "Look at this – this is Iraq."
Other Iraqi Christians quoted in the media express sentiments similar to Bassam's. Another survivor of yesterday's siege told the BBC that "I do not think I and other Christians can stay in Iraq any longer," while a young Christian from Northern Iraq (which is ostensibly much safer than Baghdad) told the New York Times, "There is no future for us here." Accounts like the one given above make for difficult reading, but they remain only a small part of the larger tragedy of Iraq's ancient Christian churches, which have suffered from continual violence, persecution, and dispersion since the fall of Saddam Hussein. My greatest fear at the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that Bush administration war policy would play a direct role in destroying one of the oldest Christian communities in the world; over the past seven years, it has become increasingly clear that those fears are being realized.

Among the more provocative comments that I have recently read on this topic come from Orthodox Christian deacon and blogger Steve Hayes, whose reflections on the suffering of Iraqi Christians came to my attention by way of a post on yesterday's tragedy on Macrina Walker's excellent blog A Vow of Conversation. This is what Deacon Stephen has to say:
The destruction of Christian communities in the Middle East surely cannot be described as an unintended consequence of the invasion. It was both forseeable and foreseen, and therefore must have been intended. It is an integral part of the Bush-Blair legacy. It is said that one should not ascribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance and stupidity, but the leaders of the most powerful nation on earth cannot have been that stupid.... can they?
While I disagree with some specific aspects of Deacon Stephen's assessment, I do think that he makes a good point. Broadly speaking, I do not believe that moral agents can be held responsible for all the forseeable or foreseen consequences of their actions: intentions and circumstances matter a great deal in assessing moral responsibility, and I'm unwilling to say that forseeability and culpability always go hand and hand. In this case, though, it seems clear that Bush, Blair, and their advisors effectively decided that the foreign policy objectives that could be achieved by invading Iraq were important enough to justify forseeable negative consequences of the invasion, including the loss of security for religious minorities in Iraq.

The Christians of Iraq are not the first minority group to be sacrificed in the name of political expediency, and I regret to say that they will certainly not be the last. Over the last few years, some American public intellectuals (Noah Feldman, for example) have argued that postwar Iraq ought to serve as a model of 'Islamic democracy,' presenting a synthesis of democratic and Islamist ideologies that other nations might be inspired to imitate; whether or not such an approach is really the best thing for an ethnically and religiously diverse nation like Iraq hasn't been much of a worry for these theorists, and it certainly has not been a worry for most American politicians and diplomats. On the whole, I think that it's fair to say that the good of Iraq's religious minorities (and not only Christians, but also other persecuted groups like the Mandaeans and Yazidis) has not been a priority for U.S. policymakers and pundits.

To preemptively rebut some potential objections to what I have written, I must emphasize that I do not think that U.S. policymakers are solely responsible for the situation that Iraqi Christians now find themselves in. A full analysis of the factors that helped to produce the current tragedy would have to consider the legacy of dhimmitude, the rising influence of Islamic fundamentalism in recent decades, and a web of cultural, economic, and social realities that have made Middle Eastern Christians much more likely than their Muslim neighbors to emigrate to the West even when politics is left out of the equation. Even if one takes all of this into account, it is impossible to deny that the U.S. invasion and its aftermath have brought about a much faster and more dramatic diminution of the Christian presence in Iraq than would have been likely before 2003.

Is it too late for the Christians of Iraq? I am afraid that it could be, though I hope very much that I am wrong. As I see it, the only way that the ancient churches of the Middle East can retain a living presence in the region is for political leaders to embrace a secular approach to governance that can help to (re-)establish social conditions favorable to religious coexistence. This is the approach suggested by the recently-concluded Synod of Catholic Bishops of the Middle East, which urged the development of a "positive secularity" in the region. As Egyptian Jesuit Father Samir Khalil Samir wrote in an article on the Synod, "What the Christians of the Middle East are asking is not only to be treated well, but to be recognized as citizens with equal rights, so that no religion has any privileges. This is our concept of secular society." AMDG.


At 11/06/2010 2:25 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes said...

I'm unwilling to say that forseeability and culpability always go hand and hand.

I wouldn't presume to argue with a presumed Jesuit on moral culpability :-)

But leaving aside the question of moral culpability, the question must be asked: What were they thinking?

What did the politiciasns who launched this purely aggressive war hope to achieve by it?

It was patently obvious, even to people who are not familiar with the inner workings of international diplomatic intrigue, that one of the most obvious consequences of the invasion would be an increase in Islamic militancy, the liklihood of an Islamist (as opposed to Saddam's secular) government in Iraq, with a consequent increase in harrassment and pressure on Christians.

Regardless of their moral culpability (I'd prefer to leave that to God), in whose interests would that be? And just what were politicians like Bush and Blair hoping to gain by it? Cui bono?

If someone goes around kicking beehives, one tends to suspect they at they might be hoping to make a quick buck from the sale of antihistamines.

At 11/06/2010 2:33 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comment. I agree that whatever interests Bush and Blair may have been seeking to protect cannot be taken to justify the consquences, which were easy enough to predict. As I wrote earlier, what has happened to the Christians in Iraq is exactly what I feared would happen to them when the invasion occurred in 2003. I suspect my fears were very widely shared, though apparently not by anyone in a position to influence U.S. and British policy at the time.

Though I agree that Bush and Blair should be blamed for this, on a personal level I'm a bit more angry at the ideologues who have been pushing the notion of "Islamic democracy." What Bush and Blair did was terrible, but it's also the sort of thing that political leaders have been doing since time immemorial - religious minorities are always being thrown under the bus for larger political purposes. It's morally outrageous, but unfortunately it's nothing new and I don't think it's a reflection of any particular ideology.

The notion of Islamic democracy as promoted by Feldman and company always struck me as cynical and disingenous, a ploy designed to try to coopt political Islam to serve the foreign policy agenda of the Bush administration - there was something terribly reckless and immoral about this, in that the proponents of Islamic democracy essentially wanted to use postwar Iraq as a experimental demonstration of an ideology that they wished to export elsewhere.

I don't think Feldman and other supporters of Islamic democracy really cared about the effect that imposition of their ideology would have on Christians and other minority groups in Iraq, or on minorities in the Islamic world in general. The real influence of the 'Islamic democracy' crowd on U.S. policy may not be that significant, but I nonetheless regard them as especially blameworthy because they, the putative 'experts,' really should have known better than to play with fire as they have.

At 11/07/2010 1:38 AM, Blogger Steve Hayes said...

Aye, but the point I'm trying to make is that the point isn't moral outrage, or culpability or blame. As I said, I prefer to leave that to God.

My point is not "look how wicked they are", because I too am a sinner, and equally if not more wicked.

But the point is more "what were they thinking?" and I think that is a question that bears repeating in the hope that it might cause people to hesitate, even momentarily, before giving gung-ho approval to politicians wars of aggression. The point is that the invasion of Iraq, though it was certainly immoral, also raises questions at the more mundane level of Ralpolitic. It was counterproductive. So the question is not "who was to blame?" But Cui bono? Who benefits?

And the answer is: Islamists.

At 11/07/2010 11:13 AM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


I completely agree - each of us has different emphases, perhaps, but I think we're both on the same page.

I think you're right that we should keep raising the key questions - "What were they thinking?" "Who benefits?" - but I must admit that I'm a bit pessimistic about the likely effects; I hope that doing so would make more people hesitate about supporting wars of aggression, but I'm fearful that we'll simply make the same mistakes over again.

We are all sinners, of course, and I fear that at a social and political level the aggregate effect of our individual sinfulness is to prevent us from doing the right thing even if we've been reminded often enough that we're in the wrong. I hope and pray that we can make some progress in spite of this, and I hope that raising the questions that you suggest gets us a bit closer to that outcome.

At 11/08/2010 2:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In my opinion, whether or not one thinks that Saddam Hussein should have been removed, there was no excuse for the ill-planed occupation and the bloodshed that came with it; many in the Arab world think it was deliberate.

Under the laws of war, occupiers are obliged to maintain order in the areas they've occupied. Those über-Christians who have seizures when they get near pro-abortion politicians, but who can't be bothered to publicly and stridently insist that Bush and Blair be held account for their being delinquent in meeting their obligations to the Iraqi people certainly don't help Iraq's Christians. Barging into another man's home, wrecking it, and getting people killed in the process is not generally conceived to be good manners.

And the Holy Father, when he cordially receives Tony Blair, the blood-drenched convert who was warned by his own advisers that to invade Iraq would be war crime, may not understand the tragedy Iraq's Christians suffer, and the perceptions his cordial meeting ineluctably creates.

The historian and Christian in me bemoan that miscreant politicians once had to go to Canossa in a hairshirt, but that today a soundbite is all the contrition that is expected. It is not only women who should be encouraged to ask a high price for their favor.


At 11/08/2010 12:06 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


I completely agree. Your hairshirt comment also makes me think of the story of King Henry II doing public penance after Becket's murder - if only today's leaders had the same understanding of contrition.


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