The End of Christianity in Iraq, Part II: 2003-2017

March 7, 2017

In December 2012, as an ever-growing number of Egyptians were heading into the streets to protest the rule of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader published a video warning Egypt’s Christians to stay out of the protests – or else.

“What do you think — that America will protect you?” the leader asked sarcastically. “America doesn’t protect anyone. They were ‘protecting’ the Christians in Iraq when they were being slaughtered!”

This is the second of a two-part article about the end of Christianity in Iraq. In the last part, I examined how, from 1920 to 1990, first the British, and then the Americans, repeatedly set up and supported dictators in Iraq who viciously persecuted Christians – including Saddam Hussein. But in 1990, there were still 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today, there are as few as 200,000 – few of whom are living in their own homes.

The story of how that happened is largely the story of America’s war in Iraq. As this Brotherhood leader knew, the “slaughter” of Iraqi Christians under the American occupation is a live memory for Christians throughout the Middle East. It should be for American Christians, too.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq, overthrew the government of Saddam Hussein, and set itself up as an occupying power. The Geneva Conventions require an occupier to take “all the measures in power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety.” But like Winston Churchill and his “planes and armored cars” strategy for ruling Iraq in 1920, the United States opted to send only 150,000 troops to keep peace in a country of 26 million people. One general who protested in public that “several hundred thousand” troops were needed was nudged into early retirement. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was eager to prove that new technologies could win wars quickly, cheaply, and cleanly. Instead, the small size of the occupation force (combined with the U.S.’ decision to disband the Iraqi Army and the Baʿath Party) threw Iraq into chaos, and opened the door for religious extremists determined to cleanse Iraq of Christians.

On August 1, 2004, bombs exploded simultaneously at five churches around Iraq. It was the opening shot of a war of extermination. Across the country that year, Christian men and children began disappearing. “They use the telephone to phone their fathers,” one Iraqi Christian said, “and they put the telephone to the son and let him cry or yell so that the father is afraid and he pays the money.” The kidnappers would often demand tens of thousands of dollars in ransom. Sometimes they would release their victims after the ransom was paid; just as often, their tortured or beheaded bodies would turn up weeks later. In Baghdad, militants targeted Christian businesses for looting, declaring that all Christian property was ghaneema – “spoils.” Thousands of Christians fled the country – so many that over a third of all Iraqi refugees in the first years of the war were Christians. A new al Qaeda-linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) appeared, declaring total war against Shiʿites and Christians. By 2006, Iraq was in a full-scale religious civil war.

Iraq improved dramatically after 2007, as the U.S. increased its troop levels and forged alliances with Sunni tribes and Iranian-backed Shiʿite political parties. These alliances helped decrease violence between Sunnis and Shiʿites, but the attacks on Christians only intensified. At the very beginning of the American troop “surge,” Christian families fled en masse from the al-Dora neighborhood in Baghdad, after a local mosque issued a call to force Christians to convert to Islam or pay a heavy tax. In February 2008, the Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped and his bodyguards killed. He managed to call his congregation on his cell phone from the trunk of his kidnappers’ car, and ordered them not to pay a ransom that would be used “for killing and more evil actions.” His body was found two weeks later. 13,000 Christians were driven out of Mosul by a wave of killings that year. On October 31, 2010, ISI gunmen stormed a church in Baghdad and killed 58 people at worship. Two days later, ISI declared in a statement, “All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets.”

According to a former State Department official, Andrew Doran, “During this campaign of systematic violence, the U.S. military provided no protection to the already vulnerable Christian community. In some instances, the clergy went to local American military units to beg to for protection. None was given.” Unlike the Islamist militias and political parties the U.S. was trying to win over, the Christians had no influence to offer in exchange for protection.

All told, probably a million Christians fled Iraq during the American occupation, leaving at most 500,000 in the country – perhaps far less. Other non-Muslim religious groups, such as the Yazidis and Mandaeans, were similarly devastated.

On my first trip to Iraq with Christian Solidarity International, I met a family whose story represents much of the Christian experience during the Iraq War. In 2006, masked men with guns came to their house twice, warning them to leave. The second time the men came, they said, “We’ve warned you twice now. If we come back a third time, we will kill you.”

They fled north with their five children, settling in a majority-Christian town in a region called the Nineveh Plains. There, they lived in a single room in a housing block thrown up by the local government for Christians fleeing from Iraq’s cities. Only one of their sons was able to find employment in the region’s depressed economy, and the entire family lived off of his meager wages. Two of their children were suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder caused by the American bombing of Baghdad; the younger would gnaw on his fists until they bled to relieve the tension. His mother was convinced that the low-quality drugs they managed to afford to treat the PTSD were interfering with his development – he was four years behind in school. She had sold her wedding ring to afford medicine for her children. They saw no future for themselves in their homeland. Their only hope was to emigrate.

Two and a half years ago, the town they had fled to was conquered by ISIS. They have presumably fled once again. Where to, I do not know.

Patrick Cockburn writes that, “A blind spot for the U.S. and other Western powers has been their failure to see that by supporting the armed uprising in Syria, they would inevitably destabilize Iraq and provoke a new round of its sectarian war.”1 Between 2011 and 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq was able to infiltrate the U.S.-backed, Sunni-dominated uprising in neighboring Syria, regroup, and plot their return. In 2013, they announced the creation of the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – ISIS – and took over the city of Raqqa in Syria. All that year, as the U.S. launched attacks on al Qaeda members from Libya to Somalia to Pakistan, Raqqa remained untouched. American leaders apparently hoped that ISIS would keep attacking Syria’s government, the U.S.’ enemy. Instead, ISIS gathered strength and prepared their invasion of Iraq.

In August 2014, ISIS overran the Nineveh Plains, one of the last safe places for Christians in Iraq. 200,000 Christians fled their homes – many of whom, like the family from Baghdad, had already fled once before. Some were kidnapped, enslaved or killed. Most of them sought refuge in the Kurdish region of Iraq, exiles in a land where they do not speak the language, and do not trust the government. The pyrrhic victory the U.S. is now trying to win against ISIS is unlikely to give Christians the security they so desperately need. Many have now left Iraq altogether. Nearly all of them hope to.

Had the U.S. set out to destroy Christianity in Iraq, it could hardly have done a more thorough job. The tragedy, of course, is that the U.S. set out to do no such thing. It set out to fight communism, to keep the homeland safe, to bring democracy to the Arab world. A fatal chain of logic turned these goals to ash: Ever since WWII, American leaders have been – and are – convinced that American power is the foundation for creating a better world. It follows that, to maintain that power, compromises can be made, human lives can be sacrificed, and the needs of the weak can be pushed aside. “The United States is and remains the one indispensable nation,” President Obama once declared. The implications of this belief for “dispensable” nations and people groups have been severe.

If Iraq’s Christian community is to survive, a sustained effort from the U.S. or some other outside power to ensure its survival is required. The Iraqi and Kurdish governments must be obliged to respect the religious freedoms and property rights of Christians. If and when ISIS is driven out, Christians will require enormous financial support to rebuild their villages and churches. Christians returning to their homes must know that they have come to a place where they will not be bombed or kidnapped. An international peacekeeping force may be required to accomplish that. A similar effort will be required to protect other persecuted groups, like the Yazidis, the Mandaeans, Sunni Arabs targeted by Iranian-backed militias, and Shiʿite Turkomans.

During his campaign, President Trump briefly expressed support for Iraqi Christians “subject to intense persecution and even genocide,” and observed, “We have done nothing to help the Christians, nothing, and we should always be ashamed for that.” Shame is indeed a proper sentiment here, but the president’s public rejection of nation-building raises questions about his commitment to fixing the problem. And if the sorry record detailed above is any guide, the U.S.’s foreign policy establishment is staffed with people who are not interested in the problem at all.

American Christians who care about the fate of Christianity in Iraq now have a very small window of time in which to make their voice heard on this issue. If no protection is forthcoming, the last Iraqi Christians will leave, and Iraq will join much of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as a Christian-free zone – until such time as God decides, in his mercy, to light the lamp of the gospel in that broken country once more.

Dig Deeper

Learn more about Christianity, the Middle East, and Iraq from these resources:

Sami Zubaida, “The Fragments Imagine the Nation,” The International Journal of Middle East Studies, 2002.
Elie Kedourie, The Chatham House Version
David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace
Sargon Donabed, Reforging a Forgotten History
Hannibal Travis, Genocide in the Middle East
Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim

About the Author
  • Joel Veldkamp is a PhD student in history at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. He lived in Syria from September 2010-May 2011, and has worked for Christian Solidarity International since September 2011. His views are his own.

  1. Patrick Cockburn, The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, 60 

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  1. Thanks so much for these two articles. Written in such a way that it helps me to understand the history so much better. May we all challenge our political leaders to protect lives and seek peace in the Middle East.

  2. I think you are looking for a political answer to what is fundamentally a spiritual-warfare problem.

    Your recapitulation of the history, although I don’t agree with all of it, shows that the interventions that have happened have not been effective in turning the Arab Islamic culture of Iraq into any kind of liberal culture. The only bright spot in your narrative was during the heaviest time of occupation!

    On top of that, the culture leadership in the US is turning away from Christianity at what seems like an accelerating pace. I cannot think of any situation where the United States has intervened in a country on behalf of a Christian minority. Maybe it has happened, but I can’t think of it. South Sudan maybe? I think that is even less likely to happen now.

    The only way I can imagine it happening is if the Iraqi Christians were to be given some sort of nation of their own. But that wouldn’t really solve the problem you expressed, just relocate the Christians outside of whatever remained as Iraq.

    If Christians are to live in Iraq it will take a very large, miraculous act of God himself, turning large numbers of Iraqis away from Islam to Christ.

  3. Keep writing, Joel. I believe God has given you a prophetic voice at a critical time in history–to announce the truth even if it is painful. Continue to show us how to raise our voices also in caring for the persecuted.