America's duty to a historic Christian community

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 February, 2007, 12:00am

Iraq is a mess, as even US President George W. Bush has finally acknowledged, and has become a particularly dangerous place for religious minorities, such as Christians.

The future of Iraq is almost certainly in the hands of Iraqis. The number of optimists who expect to see a liberal, western-oriented, united Iraq are dwindling fast. Virtually invisible, alas, has been the status of Iraq's non-Muslims. To raise awareness of their plight, the group Christians for Assyrians of Iraq held a rally in Washington in early December.

Christianity predates Islam in Iraq, and believers survived centuries of persecution. Although a brute, former dictator Saddam Hussein did not target Christians, who were largely free to work and worship. Although today's Shiite-dominated government does not oppress, Christians are a vulnerable, disfavoured minority with neither political power nor militia protection.

Christians also are caught in the violent crossfire that now characterises so much of Iraqi society.

Although they have been identified with the US - most Iraqi Christians welcomed American troops and many Christians speak English and signed up as interpreters - they have received little help in return. The Bush administration wants to avoid appearing to favour any group. For many Christians in Iraq, flight is the only option.

The UN estimates that about 40 per cent of the more than 1 million Iraqis who have emigrated are Christians. That's an astounding number for a group who made up a small portion of Iraq's pre-war population.

Ironically, most Christians have ended up in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon, rather than the west. The problem is administration policy. Arthur Dewey, the US assistant secretary of state for refugee affairs until 2005, explained: 'For political reasons, the administration will discourage Iraqi resettlement in the US because of the psychological message it would send: that it is a losing cause.'

The tragic irony of the Iraqi exodus is that it is US action that threatens to trigger the final destruction of a historic Christian community deep in the Middle East.

Nina Shea, of the Hudson Institute, speaks of the 'extinction of an ancient Christian community' which dates 'to apostolic times'. It is a community of believers who survived prior rounds of religious persecution and political oppression.

So, what should the US do? First, as long as American troops are on patrol, they should set as a priority protecting Christian communities. Second, as areas are turned over to Iraqi forces, the Bush administration should insist that the US-supported government and US-trained police and military treat all religious minorities fairly.

Third, Washington should propose the creation of a special administrative district for Christians in the north of Iraq.

Most important, America must welcome Christians and others who flee Iraq. If the administration loses face, so what? The fact that the invasion of Iraq has not turned out according to plan is obvious to all.

Other members of the international coalition should provide refuge as well. There is no consensus about the best strategy in Iraq, but there should be agreement about the importance of protecting Iraq's dwindling Christian community. This is one moral obligation America should not break.

Doug Bandow is vice-president of Policy for Citizen Outreach and author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire