Life for Iraqi Christians: Better or Worse?

There is no question that Christians in Iraq are being targeted by Muslim extremists. The stickier question is whether their lives have worsened since the U.S. removal of Saddam Hussein. In finding an answer, one must make crucial distinctions between governments and criminals, between assaults and murders, and between escapees and émigrés—none of which is easy to do.

These are important considerations, since war opponents will seize this issue as another example where the Bush administration has failed in Iraq. It is also an important consideration for war proponents like myself, since I do not want to be a head-in-the-sand apologist for the Bush administration or, much worse, a bad Christian failing to defend my persecuted brothers and sisters.

Here’s the reality: It is extremely difficult to know if there has been a rise in persecution of Christians in Iraq since 2003, because only now, after Saddam, are Iraqi Christians free to report attacks in a free press, and only now are they free to leave the country without restrictions. More, it will be easier for them to make their case to be accepted elsewhere if they are rightly understood as victims of terrible treatment inside Iraq.

This situation is reminiscent of Russians Jews after the collapse of dictatorship in the Soviet Union: Once the U.S.S.R. imploded in 1991, there was a massive exodus of over a half-million long-repressed Russian Jews. There were also sudden reports of anti-Semitism within Russia, reported by a newly free press, even though Jews had it far better under Boris Yeltsin than ever before in all of Soviet (or Russian) history.

Similarly, only now can Iraqis speak the truth. And the truth is that life was not good for the nearly one million Iraqi Christians under Saddam, as was routinely documented by sources from our State Department to international human-rights organizations.

Under Saddam, the importation of Christian literature to Iraq was limited or halted altogether, as was evangelization. Christian schools were confiscated by the state. A Christian who married a Muslim was required to convert to Islam. Unofficial discrimination existed in employment practices.

Like today, Christians had it worse in certain parts of the country, depending upon the relative concentration of Muslim thugs. Christians in Basra, for example, throughout the 1990s complained of threats they would be raped, kidnapped, or killed for their faith. Some Christian minorities elsewhere faced forced relocation. As recently as 2002, the Iraqi government issued a law that placed all Christian clergy and churches under the control of the Ministry of Islamic Property.

The extent to which Christians were killed for their faith by Saddam’s government has never been clear; if and when such killings did occur, the information was never publicized. All along, there were always fanatical Muslims outside the Iraqi government who killed Christians for their faith, as is the case throughout the Middle East, and as is happening now in post-Saddam Iraq.

Adding to a complex situation, there were actually high-level Christians who served in Saddam’s government (as there are in the Iraqi government today), such as Ambassador Nizar Hamdoon, a Catholic. Hamdoon did not like Saddam’s Iraq, and he was not free to leave. In fact, he tried to escape the country but was always kept under strict surveillance.

Things immediately got better for Iraqi Christians once Saddam was forced out of Baghdad by U.S. troops. Only days later, on April 20, 2003, Iraqi Christians celebrated Easter freely for the first time in a generation.

One such Christian was Selma Dawood, a 75-year-old widow who lived in an Assyrian Christian town in northern Iraq called Qaraqosh. The ancient town is marked by two towering Christian churches. Almost overnight in late April 2003, there were finally more steeples in Qaraqosh than murals of Saddam.

Dawood had a world-famous relative: Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz, the top Christian in Saddam’s government, and a pathological liar. “Let them [American troops] arrest him,” said Selma Dawood of her sister’s son. Asked if her nephew ever lifted a finger to help Iraq’s Christians, she responded: “No. Zero. Zero. He’s very, very bad.” Reflective of Saddam’s government, Aziz did not protect Christians.

Most significant, when not targeted for their faith, Iraqi Christians were targeted for their mere humanity. In the general sweep of things, Iraqi Christians were just as likely as Iraqi Muslims to have their children locked up in dog cages, to have their wives raped or beheaded or hung upside down in front of their family as they menstruated (an interrogation technique under Saddam), to have their ears surgically amputated for refusing military conscription, to be subjected to chemical baths or the attachment of electrodes to their genitals, to be fed feet first into large industrial meat grinders, or to be lynched from lampposts. Christians were among the 300,000 to 1,000,000 Iraqis shot and shoveled into mass graves.

So, all of this is a sincere caution in assessing a bad situation for Iraqi Christians—one for which American Christians who supported the war have a special obligation to not be silent. No doubt, Iraq’s Christians still carry their cross, while they also finally enjoy freedoms unavailable during 35 awful years under Saddam, including the right to seek redress and protection from a very different government, one which America has a likewise special obligation to try to influence for the better.