After trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives were sacrificed by the U.S. government over the last decade intervening in the Middle East â€” the birthplace of Jesus Christ and Christianity â€” Christian communities are facing unprecedented struggles across most of the region. More than a few analysts have even called the systematic and growing persecution of Christians throughout much of the Muslim world an ongoing example of genocide.
â€œConditions for genocide against non-Muslim communities exist in varying degrees throughout the region stretching from Pakistan to Morocco. The crisis of survival for non-Muslim communities is especially acute in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Sudan, the Palestinian territories, Iran and Pakistan,â€ explained Dr. John Eibner of the non-profit human-rights group Christian Solidarity International. â€œMillions of lives and the future of a religiously pluralistic civilization in the Middle East are at stake.â€
According to some estimates, more than 150,000 Christians are murdered every year for their faith around the world. The vast majority of those â€” over three-fourths â€” are in Islamic-dominated nations. And in many cases, U.S. taxpayers are either subsidizing the slaughter by distributing billions to oppressive regimes, or worse, helping to create the conditions that allow the persecution to happen in the first place.
One of the most frequent excuses offered to justify the persecution of Christians by murderous regimes and the anti-Christian fanatics they enable is that believers in Christ are somehow acting as surrogates or proxies for Western interests â€” especially the U.S. government. After decades of meddling in the internal affairs of nations around the world â€” backing dictators, sparking revolutions, imposing sanctions, and more â€” America is widely perceived as hostile and dangerous. Plus, as tyrants throughout history have learned, minorities make good scapegoats.
The trend of linking local Christian populations to American foreign policy goes back decades. In 1970, for example, Iranâ€™s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued an official Islamic decree, or â€œfatwa,â€ accusing Iranian Christians of â€œworking with American imperialists and oppressive rulers to distort the truths of Islam, lead Muslims astray, and convert our children.â€ The fatwa came while the Western establishment was still intervening on behalf of the Shah of Iran â€” leading to widespread anti-American resentment â€” and after the Central Intelligence Agency sparked a coup dâ€™Ã©tat in 1953 under the guise of fighting communism.
More recently, U.S. government intervention in the region has been justified using a broad array of issues: supposed â€œWeapons of Mass Destructionâ€ (WMDs), the terror war, regional security, trade, and vaguely defined â€œnational interests.â€ But increasingly, American policymakers have been meddling in the Middle East under the guise of â€œspreading democracy.â€ And as analysts have noted, when the overwhelming majority of the population is Muslim, so-called â€œdemocracyâ€ â€” or majority rule â€” does not generally bode well for Christians and other minorities.
But to better understand the role of U.S. foreign policy in the ongoing and worsening atrocities against Christians, it helps to examine the two nations where the American government has been most involved over the last decade: Iraq and Afghanistan. According to experts like Chairman Leonard Leo of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an official advisory body, there is now a very real prospect that Christianity could be completely wiped out in both countries. And in other nations â€” from Libya and Egypt to Pakistan and Syria â€” the effects of U.S. policies are producing similar fruit.
Christianity goes back almost 2,000 years in the land known today as Iraq. In fact, Assyrian Christians are often said to be the true indigenous people of the area. The devout communities there survived through centuries of invasion, persecution, and attempted extermination. Despite the never-ending onslaught, Christianity continued to thrive. Until â€œdemocracyâ€ arrived, that is.
In the wake of the U.S. invasion and occupation â€” which in 2007 the Congressional Budget Office estimated would cost U.S. taxpayers about $2 trillion â€” Christianity in Iraq might very well be fully eradicated. Reliable estimates found that about 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq before 2003. Today, that number is less than 500,000, with some experts claiming the true figure is actually around 200,000. In all, some two-thirds of the nationâ€™s Christians have already fled or been killed.
Despite making up just three percent of the population prior to the U.S. invasion, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Christians accounted for nearly half of the refugees by 2008. Much of the faithful remnant in Iraq is seeking a way out before the persecution gets even worse â€” and that is despite calls by numerous Iraqi church leaders for the Christian communities to remain in their homeland.
Under the secular dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Christians and other minorities were largely protected from Islamist violence and genocide â€” unlike in many areas of the Middle East. Indeed, the tyrantâ€™s socialist Baâ€™th Party was founded by Michel Aflaq, an Orthodox Christian, and actually held â€œfreedom of religionâ€ as one of its core tenets.
Of course, as is well documented, enemies of the Iraqi regime were viciously persecuted and slaughtered. Despite the fact that the U.S. government once supported the regime, Hussein has been properly characterized as a monster. But under the dictatorâ€™s iron fist, Christians worshipped openly throughout Iraq and were not treated any worse than Muslims or anyone else.
Anti-Christian violence, prevalent across much of the Middle East, was not tolerated. Almost unprecedented in the entire regionâ€™s contemporary history: A Catholic, Tariq Aziz, served as Iraqâ€™s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
Even before the United States invaded Iraq, the repercussions of overthrowing a secular dictator in the Middle East were glaringly obvious to analysts â€” then-President George W. Bush was even warned of the consequences by his own advisors. The public was alerted, too, or at least could have been had citizens taken the time to perform a simple online search. Just a few weeks before American forces invaded, analyst and political-science expert Glen Chancy, a member of the Orthodox Church, wrote a piece explaining exactly what was likely to happen to Christians in the wake of war.
â€œThis may come as a shock to many Americans, whose image of Saddam has been framed by comparisons to Adolf Hitler, but the prevalent fear among Assyrians [Christians], both in Iraq and abroad, is that what comes next after an American invasion will be worse,â€ he wrote. â€œShould the Assyrians be so concerned about being liberated by U.S. military power? If history is our guide, they shouldnâ€™t be afraid. They should be terrified.â€
Chancy made no effort to hide the murderous and barbaric nature of Saddamâ€™s tyranny. But the Iraqi tyrant was brutal to all, and unlike under most Middle Eastern regimes, Christians in Iraq were doing very well. â€œSaddamâ€™s regime has permitted a degree of free practice for Christians that is positively enviable compared to the situations experienced in such U.S. â€˜alliesâ€™ as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia,â€ he noted. â€œChristmas and Easter decorations always abound, even in Baghdad, and attending church does not require an act of courage.â€
After the United States invaded, however, everything changed. â€œThe Assyrians have survived the coming of the Persians, the Arabs, and the Turks,â€ Chancy observed. â€œIt remains to be seen if they will survive the coming of the Americans.â€ Unfortunately, as Chancy and countless other analysts warned, Christians did not fare well. With the fall of Husseinâ€™s regime, Islamist militias vented their fury not just on the â€œinfidelâ€ invaders, but on local Christians, too.
Businesses were seized, churches were bombed, women were raped, Sharia law was brutally enforced, and Christians, including women and children, were viciously slaughtered. Muslim extremists throughout the nation and Kurdish nationalists in northern areas â€” supposedly U.S. allies â€” all participated in the massacres and persecution.
A year after the U.S. invasion, Chancyâ€™s dire warnings had become reality. â€œIn fact, the current policies of the Bush administration are threatening to absolutely devastate ancient and pious Christian communities whose blood will be on all our heads,â€ he observed in late 2004, saying the American people had become accomplices in the slaughter and destruction of large segments of the worldâ€™s Christian population.
â€œTo deal with the subject honestly, it must be acknowledged that it almost appears as if President George Walker Bush were waging a global war against Christians,â€ he wrote. â€œHad President George W. Bush set out with the intentional goal of destroying the Christian population in Iraq, it is hard to see how he could have been more effective than he has been to date.â€ That was in 2004.
Since then, the situation has deteriorated further. In October of 2010, for example, Islamic extremists under the banner of the â€œIslamic State of Iraqâ€ attacked Our Lady of Salvation Syriac Catholic Cathedral in Baghdad. More than 50 Christians were murdered including two priests. The same church had already been bombed in 2004.
In August of 2011, a series of apparently coordinated attacks on more than a dozen churches left over 65 dead. In 2006, a 14-year-old boy was reportedly crucified. A priest was also beheaded. Christian women and girls, meanwhile, are also among the victims, being routinely targeted for rape and execution.
The new U.S.-imposed â€œdemocracyâ€ regime remains unable or unwilling to do much about the problem. Perpetrators are rarely brought to justice, and in more than a few cases, officials have been suspected of involvement. The brave Christians who remain in Iraq live in complete terror.
â€œWhy did they come? To do what? They came to give us freedom â€” the freedom to kill one another,â€ Auxiliary Chaldean Bishop of Baghdad Shelmon Warduni told the Christian relief agency Aid to the Church in Need. Countless senior church figures have expressed similar thoughts in recent years.
â€œEverybody hates the Christian. Yes, during Saddam Hussein, we were living in peace â€” nobody attacked us. We had human rights, we had protection from the government. But now, nobody protects us,â€ explained Archbishop Athanasios Dawood of the Syrian Orthodox Church, accusing the U.S. government of making empty promises. â€œSince 2003, there has been no protection for Christians. Weâ€™ve lost many people and theyâ€™ve bombed our homes, our churches, monasteries.â€
Top Vatican officials have pointed to the tragedy facing Christians in Iraq as well. After blasting the â€œpre-emptiveâ€ U.S. war as a â€œcrime against peaceâ€ before the invasion began, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue Jean-Louis Tauran noted in a 2007 interview that Christians, â€œparadoxically, were more protected under the dictatorship.â€
Even the U.S. governmentâ€™s own research confirms the ongoing tragedy. â€œIn Iraq, members of the countryâ€™s smallest religious minorities suffer from targeted violence, threats, and intimidation, against which the government does not provide effective protection,â€ noted the USCIRF in its 2011 annual report. â€œThese violations are systematic, ongoing and egregious, and perpetrators are rarely identified, investigated, or punished, creating a climate of impunity.â€
In fact, beyond failing to protect Christians, the new regime installed by Western forces is actually part of the problem. â€œThe smallest minorities also experience a pattern of official discrimination, marginalization, and neglect,â€ the report stated. â€œThe violence, forced displacement, discrimination, marginalization, and neglect suffered by members of these [Christian and other minority] groups threaten these ancient communitiesâ€™ very existence in Iraq.â€
Analysts debate the causes of Christianityâ€™s virtual extermination in Iraq under U.S. military occupation. Some say the American government was not prepared to deal with the situation. Others contend that it simply had other priorities and was not sufficiently concerned with the fate of Christians and minority groups.
International relations and geopolitics analyst Lee Jay Walker, for example, wrote in the Seoul Times that â€œthe destruction of Christianity in Iraq is taking place because of misguided American policies and because the Christian community is not deemed to be important.â€ No matter the reason, however, it is undeniable that Christians in Iraq have suffered tremendously as a direct result of U.S. foreign policy.
Meanwhile, the purpose of the war â€” WMDs, terror, democracy, freedom? â€” remains as elusive as ever. But the constitution of Iraq, imposed with Western assistance, has come under fire from around the globe. â€œIslam is the official religion of the State and it is a fundamental source of legislation,â€ it states. â€œNo law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.â€ The document also enshrines big-government control over healthcare, education, employment, housing, and virtually every other sector.
As in Iraq, the history of Christianity in Afghanistan is believed to go back almost 2,000 years. According to numerous sources, the apostle Thomas set out for the region and preached the Gospel throughout several areas that are now part of modern-day Afghanistan and India. The so-called â€œChurch of the Eastâ€ thrived in the region for almost 1,000 years until the arrival of strict Islamism in the 13th and 14th centuries resulted in the destruction of churches and the attempted eradication of Christianity. Still, a small remnant of Christians is believed to have survived in Afghanistan over the centuries.
The Afghan Taliban â€” largely armed and trained in the 1970s and 1980s by the U.S. government and its allies â€” was brutal when it finally seized power, especially to Christians. Once the coalition of Islamic extremists took over Kabul, it destroyed churches and viciously sought to stamp out Christianity. But despite the persecution, a sort of â€œundergroundâ€ church continued to exist throughout the groupâ€™s murderous reign.
According to the U.S. State Department, the hidden Christian minority inside Afghanistan is estimated at between 500 and 8,000 adherents. Other estimates place the number even higher, but it is impossible to know â€” publicly admitting to be a Christian would be a death sentence. Thousands more live as exiles outside of the country.
Incredibly, since the U.S. occupation began in 2001, experts say the situation for Christians in Afghanistan has not only failed to improve â€” it may have actually become worse. Even regular Afghans now associate Christians with the widely unpopular foreign occupation. And the new government is openly hostile to Christianity, which is, for all intents and purposes, illegal.
Meanwhile, the Taliban continue to rule over vast swaths of the nation, waging â€œjihadâ€ against any Christians they may discover â€” foreign or domestic. Plus, the Obama administration is desperately seeking to negotiate with the group in a bid that could see it eventually restored to power. Hardly encouraging to U.S. troops or local Christians.
Finally, the last remaining public Christian church in Afghanistan was demolished in 2010. Apparently the courts refused to uphold Christiansâ€™ claim to the property. And the U.S.-backed regime has not issued a single new building permit for churches.
Open Doorsâ€™ 2012 World Watch List, a yearly ranking of the worst regimes in terms of Christian persecution, ranked Afghanistan as number two, up from third place the year before. The only nation worse than Afghanistan was the mass-murdering communist dictatorship ruling North Korea, which, perhaps ironically, also receives significant amounts of aid from the U.S. government. Saudi Arabia came in third.
For Afghanistan too, official U.S. entities acknowledge the tragic situation. â€œThe governmentâ€™s level of respect for religious freedom in law and in practice declined during the reporting period, particularly for Christian groups and individuals,â€ noted the 2010 State Department Religious Freedom report almost a decade after U.S. forces invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the government. That decline came after President Obamaâ€™s military â€œsurge,â€ too.
â€œNegative societal opinions and suspicion of Christian activities led to targeting of Christian groups and individuals, including Muslim converts to Christianity,â€ the report noted. â€œThe lack of government responsiveness and protection for these groups and individuals contributed to the deterioration of religious freedom.â€
In its 2011 report, the USCIRF reported similar findings. â€œConditions for religious freedom remain exceedingly poor for minority religious communities and dissenting members of the majority faith [Islam], despite the presence of U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan for almost 10 years and the substantial investment of lives, resources, and expertise by the United States and international community,â€ it noted, adding that even the government was prosecuting people for such â€œcrimesâ€ as apostasy and blasphemy. â€œThe 2004 Afghan constitution has effectively established Islamic law as the law of the land.â€
The new Afghan constitution, imposed with help from the U.S. government, states that â€œno law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islamâ€ â€” Islam being the â€œofficialâ€ religion of Afghanistan. And because certain interpretations of the Koran call for executing those who leave Islam, the few remaining Christians live under permanent threat of martyrdom at the hands of the U.S. government-backed regime or the Taliban, Americaâ€™s former ally.
After a media broadcast showed Afghans being baptized, U.S.-backed â€œPresidentâ€ Hamid Karzai vowed to hunt down the new Christians. Some 20 people were reportedly arrested. A series of official prosecutions of Christians and converts has indeed helped shine the international spotlight on the issue â€” putting global pressure on the regime to back down in a few cases. But converts like Sayed Mussa, for example, have been imprisoned, raped, tortured, and prosecuted for their faith in Christ. Mussa and others like him were facing the death penalty, but massive global outcries may have saved their lives.
Of course, the U.S.-subsidized persecution has not gone unnoticed. Some American officials have even complained. â€œWe cannot justify taxpayer dollars going to a government that allows the same restrictions on basic human rights that existed under the Taliban,â€ charged Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) in a letter to then-U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry. So far, however, it appears that little has changed.
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