In the part of his Sept. 10
speech on confronting the Islamic State that probably drew the
least attention, President Obama mentioned the need to help
Christians and other minorities, expelled from cities and
villages in northern Iraq, return from where they came. “We
cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient
homeland,” he said.
Obama got that wrong. Christians, of whom around 120,000 have
taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, will not be going home even if
their tormentors suddenly disappear.
I spent 10 days talking with Christian refugees
in Irbil, the capital of the northern autonomous region of
Kurdistan, this month, and they are adamant they will not be
returning to Mosul and nearby towns on what is known as the
It is not simply that these Christians have gone through
tremendous trauma. It is not only because they lost everything,
including their homes and businesses, and in some cases spent
days and even weeks in detention while being badgered to convert
to Islam, where they saw babies taken from mothers’ arms to be
held for ransom and busloads of young people ferried off into
Nor is it
because their neighbors, in Mosul but especially in the
countryside, welcomed and even joined fighters from the Islamic
State, pointed out the homes of minorities and let them know
which ones were wealthy.
No, it is because, for Christians in Iraq, the
past three months have been the climax of 11 years of hell. We
Americans have short memories (that goes for you, too, in the
“Bush Was Right” crowd), but it’s worth noting that Christians
began having serious problems within a year after the fall of
Saddam Hussein in 2003. Sometimes it was the work of al-Qaeda,
sometimes Sunni insurgents pining for the return of Sunni
control of Iraq. Sometimes it was Shiite militias fighting the
Sunnis but finding time to persecute Christians.
First came assaults on stores that sold alcohol.
Then, in August 2004, bombs were placed outside five churches in
Baghdad and Mosul. Eleven people died. Two more churches were
bombed in November, and Christians began to flee to Kurdistan,
Jordan and Syria. Since then, at least 60 churches in the
country have been bombed. The latest was in Baghdad on Christmas
Day last year.
and bishops became particular targets, in order to deliver a
message to their flock that no one is safe. In Mosul in June
2007, gunmen shot dead a Chaldean Catholic priest and three
deacons because the priest refused to convert to Islam. The next
year gunmen kidnapped Mosul’s Chaldean archbishop, Paul Rahho,
and killed his driver and two bodyguards. The abductors stuffed
Rahho into the trunk of a car, from where he was able to call a
colleague by mobile phone and instruct the church not to pay
ransom. He was found dead a few days later in a shallow grave.
Attacks on lay Christians were continuous. Women
received threatening messages demanding that they stop working.
Families received death threats attached to demands for money
called “daftar,” slang for $10,000. Children were taken and held
for ransom. Both Sunni and Shiites, though busy with what
amounted to a civil war, found time to attack and expel
Christians from the Baghdad suburb of Dora.
All this predated the Islamic State.
One priest, himself ransomed for $85,000 in
Baghdad seven years ago, said a Muslim acquaintance once warned
him, “Saturday’s gone. Why are you still here on Sunday?” His
meaning was that Jews, who worship on Saturdays, had fled Iraq
long ago, so why were the Christians still there?
Indeed, the exodus of Christians is ongoing. Has anyone noticed
that the Christian population of Iraq has shrunk from more than
1 million in 2003 to maybe 300,000 today? Now, there are
virtually no Christians left in either Mosul or on the plain.
So when I ask refugees their plans, it is
unanimously to leave Iraq altogether. Enough is enough. This
runs counter to the desire, expressed mostly outside Iraq, that
a Christian presence be preserved in a land that has known
Christianity for 2,000 years. It’s sad but true: Christianity in
Iraq is finished. As one refugee told me, “We wanted Iraq. Iraq
doesn’t want us.”
Humanitarian aid, mentioned by Obama, is fine and necessary. But
the broader problem faced by refugees — the fact that Christians
and other minorities will likely never return to Iraq — is left
States and Europe both have provisions for providing temporary
protection to refugees who can’t go home; it falls short of
asylum but nonetheless can provide people with economic help to
get them on their feet while keeping open the possibility,
unlikely as it seems, of returning to Iraq. France has already
taken a couple of planeloads of Christians out of Kurdistan.
Much more is needed. Western countries ought to come together
and offer refuge to the tens of thousands who want to leave
Yes, this would
mean the end of Christianity in this part of the world, where
its presence has often served as a bulwark against fanaticism.
But it’s over anyway, whatever happens to the Islamic State.
It’s time to face that fact and save the Christians themselves.