The story is the same throughout the Middle East. Christians are caught between a rock and a hard place. In Israel they are caught between Moslems and Jews. In other countries they are caught between various Moslem groups, such as the Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. And the toll of being the middle man is great, and steadily mounting. Consider for example that in the 1960s the city of Nazareth was over 75% Christian and the same can be said for Bethlehem. Today, my friend Issah, born and baptized in Bethlehem has a difficult time getting there from his home in east Jerusalem because of Israeli policies, even though they know he is a harmless Christian who works for CBS. He suffers the same harassment and discrimination as other Palestinian Christians. But bad as it is in Israel it is much worse in Iraq. Here is the link to a story posted today in the NY Times about the dilemma of Christians in Iraq:
A little history is in order. Two of the oldest forms of Christianity still exist today in Iraq-- Chaldean Catholics and Assyrian Christians. They are still the largest Christian groups in the country, which at one time during the reign of Saddam Hussein were well over 1.5 million in number, but today the total number of Christians in Iraq is likely less than 600 thousand. One of the remarkable signs of the antiquity and continuous heritage of both the Chaldeans and the Assyrians is that they still pray in Aramaic-- the spoken language of Jesus. There are of course other sorts of Catholics, Syrian Orthodox Christians, and a precious few Protestants in Iraq as well (there is but one Anglican Church, St. George's in Baghdad). But the numbers are dwindling between the car bombs going off next to churches and the families fleeing the country.
It may seem obvious why the Christians are fleeing the country-- the country is in a war and there is chaos. But there is more to it than that. Christians are quite specific targets of Moslem militias, both Sunni and Shiite because they are viewed as being on the side of the 'Western Crusader invaders'. Yes, that's right, the Americans are viewed as representatives of Christianity, whether they are or not. This has led to tremendous violence against churches, priests, and innocent Christian citizens as well as this article so ably points out. But there is more.
The violence has increased enormously since the speech of the Pope which had an unfortunate 14th century quotation about Islam in it. Fury against the remarks of the Pope is being taken out on Christians, any Christians at all. There are of course other reasons Christians are resented or disliked. They tend to run the liquor stores in Iraq, and since strict Moslems are supposed to be tee totalers, this is seen as but one more way that Christians are trying to lead the Moslems down the garden path. Lest you be surprised at Christians running liquor stores in Iraq, I could tell you about how the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow has the tax concession on lingerie and cigarettes, and so you will find billboards for Victoria Secret or Marlborough in some of the church yards there. This is way worse than bingo for money.
Where are the Christians fleeing to when they leave Iraq? They are going to Jordan, Syria, Turkey. Are we doing anything to help them? Not really-- only the neighboring Moslem countries are really taking them in. Let me see if I can get this straight--- the moderate Moslems are taking in the Christians because the allegedly more Christian nations don't want to. Hmm.....What was that Jesus once said "in as much as you have not done it unto the least of these, you have not done it unto me?"
The thing is, most Iraqis even if Christian, are fearful they would not be treated well in the West, due to their ethnicity. They have a right to be fearful as we have already made clear through the story of Omar Alrikabi on this blog. Americans definitely see color and ethnicity. And anything that looks Middle Eastern is under suspicion at this juncture. And so Christianity as a voice of moderation continues to dwindle in war-torn Iraq. At some point we have to ask-- is our American presence in Iraq doing more harm than good, especially to the moderates who still live in that country?
I do not pretend to know all the answers to the complex situation there, but this I know. The statue on Ellis Island says "give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free" As a nation made up almost entirely of immigrants, we truly ought to be sympathetic to other persons who need a place to live because they are being persecuted due to their religion, and all the more so since they are Christians. Remember the Pilgrims and the Puritans? I say open the door and let them in and churches should welcome them with open arms and help find them places to live and jobs. The Church is, after all, a "worldwide fellowship throughout the whole wide earth." There is no Iraqi or American in Christ, for all are one-- to paraphrase a famous apostle (Gal. 3.28).