Christians in Iraq: the determination to stay

We are afflicted in every way but not crushed,
Perplexed but not driven to despair,
Persecuted but not forsaken,
Struck down but not destroyed.
2Cor 4:8-10

The massacre that took place on the 31st October 2010 at the Church of Sayyidat al-Najat (Our Lady of Deliverance) is one of the most savage attacks that have been inflicted on the Christians of Iraq since 2003.

Since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Christians have been kidnapped, tortured, raped and evicted from their homes with the threat of either convert to Islam or leave or else.

Over sixty houses of worship have been destroyed, 17 religious leaders were kidnapped, some tortured and five killed including the bishop of Mosul and a Protestant pastor. However despite the continued dangerous situation in Mosul, Baghdad seemed a relatively safe place for the Christians.

The last attack on a church in Baghdad occurred on the 12th of July 2009 and the last priest kidnapped was on 6th June 2007. This is why this barbaric attack followed ten days later by a series of bombings and mortar attacks targeting Christian homes in six districts of Baghdad killing five people and destroying many homes is of great significance.

As we followed the news from Mosul where Christians were forced out of their homes in the autumn of 2008, followed the scattered murder of individuals in their homes throughout 2009 and the murder of students as they were travelling to university in Mosul, we thought that al-Qaeda had moved to Mosul and believed the leaders who claimed that it had been eradicated from Baghdad. Unfortunately this was not true and nobody can be trusted anymore.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that these attacks are part of a broader effort by some elements in the Middle East to drive Christianity from its heartland. Already more than half the Christian community of Iraq has left to neighbouring countries and subsequently to western countries. Those who are left are living in fear and feel indignant that nobody can protect them.

However despite all these difficulties there is still a large number of the faithful determined to stay - come what may. They feel that this is their country in which their ancestors lived for thousands of years and would like to remain as witnesses to their faith and heritage.

With a spirit of endurance and fortitude, they gathered in the damaged church still stained with the blood of its martyrs the following Sunday to say mass. Many Muslims who were indignant at what happened and wanted to show their solidarity with the Christian community joined them.

The difficult question that poses itself is what could be done to protect these helpless people? An immediate solution is to ask the security authorities in Iraq to take appropriate steps to protect the Christian community but in the absence of a strong government what else could be done?

The leader of the Syrian Catholic church Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Daood called on the international community to take action. He stated: ‘Christians are slaughtered in Iraq, in their houses and churches, and the so called free world is watching in complete indifference, interested only in responding in a way that is politically correct and economically opportunistic, but in reality is hypocritical.’

He demanded ‘that the US congress, the United Nations, the International commission of Human Rights and the League of Arab States condemn the attack and take the appropriate action to defend innocent Christians brutally singled out because of their religion, in Iraq and some other Middle Eastern countries.

The Archbishop of the Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad Matti Mattoka demanded that the security authorities in Iraq provide protection for places of worship for Christians, especially on Sundays and that Muslim religious leaders have a duty to condemn these terrorist attacks in public and highlight the religious texts, which support the spirit of tolerance and peaceful coexistence between religions.

He also recommended a change in the curriculum at all levels and in all Muslim countries, in particular the withdrawal of all the words of hatred against the followers of other religions. He also demanded of the media to promote cooperation among citizens with the elimination of religious intolerance, using themes from the principles of sociology, philosophy, history and comparative religion.

What happened in Sayyidat al-Najat is a true human and religious catastrophe. But what is worse is that such catastrophes have been happening to Eastern Christians for years and Christians in the western world are ignorant of it. There is ignorance of the ancient Christian presence in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East.

It is time for Christians in the West to take interest in their brothers and sisters of the faith and educate themselves about their history. They will then be stimulated to show true solidarity with them and encourage their governments to do something.

The Christian community of the Middle East is haemorrhaging and they should support it in every possible way. The exodus of Christians from their original homelands is not only a tragedy for the Iraqi faithful themselves but a disaster for all Christians.

Their flight removes a moderating force from the Middle East. Christians in the region have for centuries acted as bridge builders between East and West. As the faithful flee the chance of understanding between the historically Christian and Muslim civilizations is reduced.

Suha Rassam is founder of the charity Iraqi Christians in Need and author of new book, 'Christianity in Iraq'.