Politics & Policy

Saving Iraq’s Christians

Asking, "Who is my Neighbor?"


We, Christians of Mesopotamia, are used to religious persecution and pressures by those in power. After Constantine [d. 337 A.D.], persecution ended only for Western Christians, whereas in the East threats continued. Even today we continue to be a Church of martyrs.

– Most Reverend Paulos Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul: interviewed in Rome, November 26, 2007; kidnapped and murdered in Mosul, February 29, 2008

A church of martyrs on the cusp of annihilation. That’s the grim reality that Iraq’s beleaguered and vanishing Christian community faces. And it’s no secret, especially after two pillars of establishment journalism — the New York Times and CBS’s 60 Minutes — produced truly shocking accounts of savage persecution right before the Fourth of July.

The June 26 Times piece is one of the most thorough treatments yet of the ubiquitous practice of “protection money” (jizya) being extorted from Iraq’s surviving Christians on pain of death, exile, or forced conversion to Islam. And the June 29 60 Minutes segment recounts in chilling detail how “Iraqi Christians are being hunted, murdered, and forced to flee — persecuted on a biblical scale.”

“All Iraqi Christians paid [the jizya],” says Yonadam Kanna, one of just two Christians serving in Iraq’s 275-member parliament. In fact, Archbishop Rahho was murdered precisely for halting such payments on behalf of his flock, mistakenly believing in good faith that the overall success of the U.S. military surge had eliminated the need.

What neither report makes sufficiently clear, however, is that all these evils are being committed in the name of Islam, under the pretext of enforcing Islamic law on behalf of the Muslim community or umma.

To be sure, the perpetrators are generally private individuals — Sunni or Shiite extremists or common gangsters — acting, under color of religious law but without proper religious authority, for wholly illicit purposes (including private revenge and criminal gain). But the Islamic basis for ongoing persecution is undeniable. The incidents invariably follow precisely the same pattern, with precisely the same threats (see, for instance, here and here) and citations to precisely the same Koranic verse:

Fight those who do not believe in the Last Day and do not forbid what God and his Messenger have forbidden — such men as practice not the religion of truth, being those who have been given the Book [i.e., Christians and Jews] until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled (9:29).

If this text and related traditions are being misinterpreted and misapplied, then it is above all the ulema’s, or clergy’s, duty to make that authoritative theological judgment unmistakably clear. These crimes openly usurp the clergy’s authority, as the “Islamic men of learning” are traditionally given the exclusive prerogative to interpret and apply Islamic law, but the ulema have failed to denounce or halt these abuses effectively. This compares unfavorably with the clergy’s direct — and highly effective — ongoing intervention in all aspects of Iraq’s political life, from shaping the 2005 constitution to organizing, supporting, and even directing sectarian political parties.


The ulema’s traditional authority is not the only issue here. Another problem is the content of Islamic teaching regarding non-Muslims as neighbors and fellow citizens, the very issue that an authoritative group of Muslim leaders (clerics, scholars, and government officials) has advanced as the basis for dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church.

This is the Common Word initiative, launched under Jordanian auspices last fall with the publication of a lengthy scriptural exegesis seeking to establish parallels between the Koran and the Bible regarding love of God and love of neighbor. At the same time, the initiative’s authors are deliberately seeking to rule out any concrete, immediate application of these scriptural insights (see here, here, and here).

Even putting aside contemporary realities like Iraq, it’s not at all clear that the parallels between the Bible and the Koran can bear the weight of both sides’ expectations.

Take, for instance, the parable of the Good Samaritan (Mark 12:28-31), which has no clear Koranic counterpart. In this story, robbers attack and beat a man. Two members of the cultural elite (a priest and a Levite) show him no goodwill, but a despised outsider helps the man. For Christians its force derives from the unexpected charity — and simple human solidarity — is not limited to one’s own kind.

In addition, there’s the insoluble conundrum of comparing apples and oranges: Christians generally regard the Bible as inspired by God, but not the direct word of God — it’s subject to its authors’ flaws and thus subject to responsible interpretation. By contrast, Muslims generally regard scripture as uncreated and inerrant, radically limiting the scope of interpretation. Limiting dialogue to scripture alone — as in the Jordanian initiative — offers little hope of constructing a common ethic for coexistence, which from the Catholic point of view constitutes the ultimate object of the whole exercise.

As it happens, the two sides agreed to split the difference, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI’s insistence on a broader approach to inter-religious dialogue based on the lived experience of faith, taking into account history, tradition, and contemporary realities. This broader approach requires each side to ask, Who exactly is my neighbor? What are his rights and my responsibilities?

These are questions that every faith has had to ask in every age, so Muslims today can to learn from the mistakes of others. In the case of Roman Catholicism, official church teaching on religious freedom before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was to seek domination where possible and accept toleration where necessary. The council fathers radically reshaped that teaching by recognizing that the individual dimension of religious freedom matters just as much as its collective or institutional dimension, thus acknowledging for the first time the status of freedom alongside the traditional public goods — justice, order, and peace — as an ultimate value.

Islam may reach similar conclusions, but not soon enough for Iraq’s suffering Christians.


What’s needed right now is direct humanitarian aid and adequate security, as spelled out in last month’s NRO piece by Robin Harris. Responsibility for carrying out these measures belongs to the Iraqi federal government, the Kurdish authorities, the U.S. government, and Iraqi Christians themselves.

Meanwhile, Iraq’s clerical establishment has its own responsibilities. Muslim clerics, beginning with Grand Ayatollah Sistani, need to decide whether to stand with religious minorities as neighbors, fellow Iraqis, and equal citizens. This means repudiating extremists and gangsters by saying, “Not in our name; Not in the name of Islam.”

As it happens, a June 29 Washington Post piece offers a most encouraging and relevant example of forceful Muslim clerical leadership in India (home to 130 million Muslims). After a spate of terrorist bombings, the venerable and enormously influential Deobandi seminary is taking a decisive and unequivocal stand against terrorism committed in the name of Islam. As one prominent Muslim leader put it:

It is our religious duty to tell people that terrorism cannot be jihad. It is not a holy war. There are so many bomb blasts in India today. Innocent people are dying. We are doubly concerned because Islam is being used to carry them out (emphasis added).

This is a significant development for two reasons, the first being Deoband’s role as the historical flagship of traditionalist Islamic teaching on the Indian subcontinent (most recently as the theological incubator of the Taliban movement). And second, the comment cited above — like the institution’s recent fatwa (binding religious ruling) — explicitly rejects terrorism as intrinsically evil (“innocent people are dying”), rather than as merely misguided for purely prudential reasons (because it looks bad or happens to be politically counterproductive).

Finally, ordinary Americans are not without responsibilities toward distant neighbors, especially Iraqi Christians, given America’s role in Iraq. In an election year, taking responsibility means pressing elected officials, above all the president and the two senators running to replace him. A single, timely question asked at a public forum could generate sufficient publicity to shame the Bush administration into shaking off its studied indifference and finally doing the right thing.

For the biblically minded, speaking up — and praying — for our Iraqi brothers and sisters are moral obligations, based squarely on the choice to follow either the Good Samaritan or Pontius Pilate. What say you, Senators McCain and Obama?

– John F. Cullinan is an expert in international human rights and religious freedom.


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