By Natasha Dado – The National –
The world must act fast to prevent what happened to religious minorities during this period from continuing before it’s too late
The 20th anniversary of the US-led invasion of Iraq may be a moment to shine a spotlight on the country’s Christian population.
As a Catholic Iraqi American, I have watched from afar as my culture and heritage slowly disappear. Indeed, since the start of the war, the Christian population has reportedly diminished by more than 80 per cent, from an estimated 1.5 million to 250,000, according to Christian leaders as well as NGO and media reports. More than 350 churches have been destroyed in attacks carried out by terrorists during this period.
Ancient Christian sites and artefacts left in ruins over the past two decades threaten to erase the history of a people dating back thousands of years. In past years, attacks made Iraq a less safe place for Christians to worship, and prevented displaced followers of the faith from returning to their homeland.
This is deeply personal, as ISIS murdered two of my cousins whose only crime was following their religious teachings. The war undoubtedly made the country vulnerable to terrorism. Prior to that, Christians had felt safer and enjoyed more religious freedom and protections. After then president Saddam Hussein was toppled from power at the start of the invasion, many Christians were subjected to persecution by terrorists and forced into exile from their ancestral lands.
While Christians only accounted for a small minority of the population, faced persecution for hundreds of years and are the indigenous people of Iraq, they were quickly targeted after the invasion.
The history of Iraqi Christians, widely referred to as Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs, dates back more than 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, which many consider to be the cradle of civilisation. Most Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs don’t identify as Arabs because they are indigenous people and speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, which is dying out. These communities were in Iraq long before it was established as a modern nation-state.
Remaining Iraqi Christians ‘can’t afford another exodus’ of any sort
Another setback for religious minorities came in 2014 when ISIS gained a stronghold in Mosul. At the time, ISIS gave Christians the ultimatum to flee their city, convert to Islam, pay a special tax or die. To identify members of the faith, ISIS marked homes belonging to Christians with the letter “N” for Nazarene – Arabic for Christian.
After the takeover of Mosul, the city was nearly void of Christians for the first time in thousands of years, as more than 125,000 were forced to flee. Yazidis, another minority and indigenous group, faced the same fate as about 200,000 fled during the event.
I recently asked a friend whether he thought Christians had a future in Iraq. He said they did, provided no other event pushed them out in droves. I brought up the fall of Mosul to point out how dire the situation is for the remaining Christians, who simply can’t afford another exodus. A population database from an NGO called the Shlama Foundation estimates that only 141,346 Chaldeans, Assyrians and Syriacs remain in Iraq today.
Iraqi Christians in need of special attention after war
An unfathomable number of Iraqis have experienced the devastating toll of the war and its consequences, with more than one million killed. Similarly, many Muslims are victims of religious persecution and mosques have been destroyed. However, religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis, are victims of what the international community has characterised as genocide and ethnic cleansing. These minorities remain uncertain about whether they will be a part of Iraq’s future, and are threatened with extinction.
The plight of these indigenous communities must be treated as a separate issue in order to find effective solutions that ensure their survival.
‘Iraqi Christian diaspora worldwide has the right to a homeland’
In 2010, the church my mother took her communion in, Our Lady of Salvation Church, in Baghdad, was bombed in an attack by suicide bombers that left dozens dead. The thought of another church attack or Christian site being destroyed is unsettling. Since this is my identity, I lose a part of myself every time a piece of my history is wiped away.
Members of the Iraqi Christian diaspora worldwide have the right to a homeland they can always return to without fear of being targeted for their faith, and one where the community’s language and culture continues to thrive.
Growing up, my immigrant parents and grandmother spoke Chaldean, a dialect of Aramaic. I learned Chaldean prayers from my grandmother which we used to recite together. She was like a second mother and so much of this is about fighting to keep her culture, language and heritage alive.
I was raised in the Detroit metropolitan area that is home to about 160,000 Chaldeans. The customs, traditions, food and history that my community brought from Iraq remain close to my heart. It is difficult to accept that one day they might cease to exist in the homeland of my parents and ancestors.
World must act fast before it’s too late
As a news reporter, I have made use of every opportunity to spread awareness about the plight of Iraqi Christians after the war, by pitching and writing stories about them. During this period, I have learnt that journalists may not be able to lift people out of their plight but we can share their stories with the rest of the world – and that is powerful.
On the 20th anniversary of the Iraq war, therefore, I want to raise awareness about the country’s Christians, in the hope that the international community acts to prevent their tragedy from continuing before it is too late.
Photo: Iraqi Christians protest religious persecution in their homland during a 2014 rally in Metro Detroit.