by Chris Peek
7 April 2011
As worshippers gathered for Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad on October 31, 2010, no one could envision the bloodshed that would occur that day. According to witnesses, al Qaeda terrorists stormed the church and, upon entering, immediately shot the priest. They held hostage the congregation of more than 100 before Iraqi security forces intervened, setting off a deadly gun battle. Thirty-seven hostages and seven members of the security force were brutally murdered that day. This was the deadliest church attack since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Reuters).
However, this was no isolated incident. Only July 12, 2009, seven churches were bombed in Baghdad, and another five were attacked in Mosul during the last two months of 2009 (United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 70). Attacks on religious minorities, especially Christians, have become all too commonplace, including “religiously-motivated killings, abductions, beatings, rapes, threats, intimidation, forced displacements, forced conversions, and attacks on religious leaders and holy sites.” (USCRIF, 2010). Such repeated, heinous acts have resulted in a mass exodus of Christians from the country, as it is estimated that the Christian population has dwindled from 1.4 million in 2003 to an estimated 500,000 today (USCIRF, 2010).
Prior to the commencement of Operation Iraqi Freedom, one argument used to justify war involved creating a free and democratic society in the Middle East. On February 26, 2003, President George W. Bush asserted,
“The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people themselves. Today they live in scarcity and fear, under a dictator who has brought them nothing but war, and misery, and torture. Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein–but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us (Pan, Council on Foreign Relations).”
Unfortunately, the plight of Christians and other religious minorities demonstrates a clear violation of basic natural and legal rights, as these groups have not experienced the supposed newfound “freedom” brought to their nation (Pan, CFR). In fact, the situation has arguably worsened since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. When the new constitution was instituted in 2005, Iraq essentially voted to institute Islam as the official state religion. In a 2008 interview, Brian Grim, a senior research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, argued that the constitution does provide a guarantee of religious freedom. However, it also contains “what some have termed a ‘repugnancy clause’ that is similar to what is found in the Afghani constitution. Article 2 of the Iraqi constitution states, ‘No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established’ (Grim, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life).”
Instead of genuine religious freedom, many are forced to live in fear if they choose to remain in Iraq. Christians cannot count on government intervention in the face of such atrocities. Hence, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Iraq as a “country of particular concern” for the past three years. According to their Annual Report 2010:
“Members of these small groups continue to experience targeted violence and intimidation, do not have militia or tribal structures to defend themselves, and do not receive adequate official protection or justice. Many have fled to neighboring countries, and are not returning to Iraq (USCRIF, 2010).”
The Iraqi government and the US military are not serious about protecting the natural or legal rights of minority religious groups. The Iraqi forces face the enormous responsibility of defending the war-battered nation after the US removed the majority of its troops from Iraq in 2010. Yet, questions are evident: are the Iraqi troops prepared to offer protection, especially for Christians and other non-Muslim groups, against terrorists and local tribes? What types of corruption are found within the Iraqi security forces? According to some reports during the Baghdad church massacre, Iraqi security forces burst into Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad and began firing indiscriminately. These forces were also criticized for their slow reaction time and poor handling of the crisis (Timmerman, Newsmax).
All Iraqis deserve to live under a state of freedom and security, guided by a rule of law that does not show favoritism to majority or individual religious groups. Yet, the national government is more concerned with protecting Islamic law than guaranteeing safety as a collective and individual right. After eight years of war and a new “democratic” government, Iraqi Christians have fewer protections in 2011 than in 2003. They live in a constant state of fear; they know they place their lives in even greater danger when attending a public worship gathering.
It is difficult to envision Iraq as a preeminent, democratic beacon in the Middle East if it cannot demonstrate its seriousness in providing basic security for the nation’s non-Muslim, religious populations and houses of worship. As waves of Christians head for the border, the nation moves further from the envisioned free and democratic society, inching ever-closer to an Islamic state.
Annual Report 2010. (2010 May). United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 67-69.
Retrieved April 5, 2011, from http://www.uscirf.gov/images/annual%20report%202010.pdf
Pan, Ester. Iraq: Justifying the War. (2003, October 17). Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved April 5,
The Plight of Iraq’s Religious Minorities. (2008, May 15). Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Retrieved
April 5, 2011, from http://pewresearch.org/pubs/847/the-plight-of-iraqs-religious-minorities
Reuters. 52 killed in Iraq church hostage drama. (2010, November 1). The Express Tribune.
Retrieved April 5, 2011, from http://tribune.com.pk/story/70816/37-christians-killed-in-iraq-church-hostage-drama/
Timmerman, Kenneth. Were Iraqi Security Forces Involved in Baghdad Church Massacre? (2011, March 1). Newsmax. Retrieved April 6, 2011, from http://www.newsmax.com/KenTimmerman/iraq-baghdad-iraqichristians-OurLadyofSalvationChurch/2011/03/01/id/387884
Images Courtesy of Geek Philosopher