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The purge of Iraq’s minorities could have been avoided
August 8, 2014, 6:03 am

Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Mandeans and other minorities have fled Iraq since the 2003 US invasion. These Iraqi Christian girls attend a prayer service at a church in Amman, Jordan July 30, 2014 [Xinhua]

Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Mandeans and other minorities have fled Iraq since the 2003 US invasion. These Iraqi Christian girls attend a prayer service at a church in Amman, Jordan July 30, 2014 [Xinhua]

Suddenly, the international community has remembered that there was once a thriving, bustling and productive Christian community in Iraq.

Suddenly, the foreign media have raised the alarm about possible genocide perpetrated by the fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant against minorities such as the Christians and Yazidis of Iraq.

Suddenly, foreign dignitaries are urging world powers to protect these minorities.

Earlier this week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius was quoted as saying that his country was “very deeply concerned by the … seizure of Qaraqoush, Iraq’s biggest Christian village, and by the intolerable abuses committed.”

What is happening to minorities throughout Iraq – and not only in the north – is truly a tragedy of historic proportions.

But the momentum for action is coming much too late.

It is time to come to terms with the fact that Iraq’s minorities have been facing ethnic cleansing for years.

Since seizing control from a defunct army of rogue militias and ragtag fighters camouflaging as a national army, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has systematically and systemically purged the north of Iraq and areas of Syria of non-Muslim minorities.

History is being unmade. For the first time in 1,800 years, there are no Christians in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq.

Their monasteries, which have provided sanctuary and guidance for Muslims as well, have been razed to the ground alongside gutted Islamic heritage sites that were built as tombs of Biblical prophets.

One of these terrorist attacks hit too close to home.

Deir Mar Behnam, a 1,800-year-old monastery near Mosul, was seized by ISIL who removed all crosses, evicted the monks and defaced its ancient walls. I remember going there a number of times as a child; it was a place that provided sanctuary, prayer and communal bonding for Christians and Muslims.

I fear it may be destroyed.

Turning the other cheek

But Iraq’s current tragedy is a by-product of the media’s ignoring the intimidation and persecution that threatened to eradicate not only the Christian minority, but other minorities as well – such as the Mandeans of southern Iraq.

These minorities have faced such dangers since 2004, but their plight has been largely ignored.

In the early 1980s, Iraq’s Christian population numbered 1.4 million but economic strife brought on by the war with Iran and UN sanctions after the 1991 Gulf War pushed some in the ancient community to emigrate.

Within 15 years that number had dwindled to less than half. Since then, and with the ISIL threat front and center, Iraq may have only a handful of Christians left if urgent and direct measures to protect them, and their heritage, are not immediately taken.

Since the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the Christian community found itself under attack and tens of thousands have since fled the country in fear of religious persecution.

On August 2, 2004, more than a dozen Christian worshippers were killed when five Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean churches came under coordinated attacks in the capital Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

Nine other churches were attacked before the end of the year.

A United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) report on the Guidelines Relating to the Eligibility of Iraqi Asylum-Seekers in October 2005 said that the end of officially preached religious tolerance in Iraq created an environment of fear for the country’s minorities.

“Iraqi Christians feel especially apprehensive about the overwhelming presence of extremist Islamic groups and armed militias, whose display of intolerance towards non-Muslims has become a nearly daily feature in Iraq,” the report said.

Between 2003 and 2014, the attacks against minorities expanded to include more than just Christians.

The Mandeans, or Sabians, a sect of people who follow the teachings of John the Baptist and pre-date Christianity and Islam in Iraq, have since 2003 been forced to leave en masse because of a brutal campaign against them.

Once numbering nearly 75,000 and located in southern Iraq, they were told to either convert to Islam or face death – much like the Christians and Yazidis in 2014.

“Sabian Mandaean/Mandaeans face extinction as a people. Around two-thirds of the population has been expelled or killed since 2003,” said a report by Minority Rights Group International in 2008.

Repeated warnings

With most of Iraq’s security forces bogged down in a war with militia and extremist forces, the attacks on minorities became more brazen – and targeted.

In October 2006, Orthodox priest Friar Boulos Iskander was found dismembered and beheaded even after a ransom was paid to a militia group which had abducted him.

In early 2007, the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul was attacked a number of times and its leaders targeted for assassination. In June 2007, they killed the parish priest Friar Ragheed Ganni and three of his deacons.

The Archbishop of Mosul Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnaped in February 2008 and found in a shallow grave two weeks later. His murder led to a migration of thousands of Christians from Mosul.

His successor, Archbishop Amil Nona, warned in 2010 that the Christians would soon disappear from Mosul.

But his warnings have gone unheeded.

In October 2010, an armed group seized the Lady of Our Salvation church in Baghdad during evening Mass. More than 70 people were killed when Iraqi security forces stormed the compound.

Is it beyond the realms of comprehension to argue that the horrors the Yazidis, Christians and Mandeans face today could have been avoided had the international community intervened in 2004? Or 2006? Or 2007?


It is poignant to recall a statement from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which said that religiously motivated attacks signaled “an exodus that may mean the end of the presence in Iraq of ancient Christian and other communities that have lived on those same lands for 2,000 years”.

That warning was made in May 2006.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

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