Middle Eastern Christians Face Calamity

The Middle East is embroiled in chaos and what little remains of the ancient Christian communities there are being destroyed with the latest tragic turn of events in Iraq. The barbarism of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that began a military and terror campaign from Syria swept into Iraq to capture numerous towns and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city in June 2014 to practically erase the post-World War I border between Syria and Iraq. ISIS declared itself an Islamic State with its capital in Mosul and is now brutally cleansing its territory of Christians, a humanitarian horror and outrage that is largely ignored by Western countries, including the United States.

Western elites welcomed the “Arab spring” which began shaking the foundations of authoritarian political power throughout the Middle East in 2011 as heralding an era of democracy and freedoms in the region. A bitter paradox is that, contrary to Western hopes, the brutal and despicable authoritarian regimes of the past such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Hafez Assad’s in Syria provided more freedoms to Christian minorities than do the security environments in those countries today.

The fall of Mosul was a watershed event for imperiled Middle East Christians. In consolidating control of the city, ISIS in July issued demands to Christians read out in the city’s mosques to convert to Islam or pay taxes or “dhimma” to avoid being killed. One of the senior Christian leaders in Iraq reported that ISIS had been marking Christian homes with the letter “N” for “Nassarah,” a term used for Christians in the Koran. The terrorizing led to a mass exodus of Christians from Mosul to Kurdish controlled territory in Iraq, leaving Mosul vacant of Christians for the first time in Iraq’s history.

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The Christian exodus from Iraq has been well underway since the 2003 war, but was accelerated with ISIS’s capture of Mosul. Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic population had been more than one million in 2003, had fell to about 450,000 due to discrimination and violence against Christians by both of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Muslim sects. Mosul had about 60,000 Christians at the time of the 2003 war, but was less than 35,000 at the time of the ISIS capture of Mosul. Now the few Christians who remained are fleeing and ISIS is systematically destroying crosses, statues, and manuscripts, and thirty churches that Christians had to abandon in the city.

Western and American policy paralysis since 2011 contributed to ISIS’s violent rise in Syria and Iraq. President Obama played Hamlet over the policy option of recruiting, training, and arming politically moderate Syrian opposition forces to wage battles against Syrian Islamic militants like al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as against the repugnant Assad regime. The prospects of nurturing such an opposition in accord with Western and American interests were by no means assured, but the United States would have had to try to find out. Instead, the Obama administration vacillated and allowed ISIS to move out of Iraq and into Syria in 2011 and to grow to dominate Syria’s opposition forces. The emboldened ISIS then returned to Iraq this year to intimidate, coerce, and murder to instill so much fear in Iraq to compel the country’s numerically superior military forces to collapse and retreat to Baghdad. Iraq is now fractured into three de facto states—the Sunni Islamic State, the rump Shia Iraq state, and the Kurdish state—even though it is not polite to say so in policy, diplomatic, and military company.

The United States’ war in Iraq arguably ended in December 2011 when Iraq’s Shia dominated government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to sign a status of forces agreement to allow a continued American military presence in Iraq. The combat today in Iraq is largely sectarian violence between battling Shia and Sunni forces—with Christians fleeing the crossfire—backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf states, respectively. The United States does not have a national interest in having either of these sects prevailing in the conflict. If the Sunnis win, ISIS and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi brand of militant Islam will dominate Iraq and the region. And if the Shia win, Iran and Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy Shia militia in Lebanon, will have regional security sway.

Iran is fervently supporting the Iraq Shia rump government with military assistance.   Iran has dispatched a senior and capable Revolutionary Guard general to command about 120 advisors in Iraq and to direct Iraq’s Shia militias that are the bastions of support for the hemorrhaging Maliki government. At least two Iranian advisors have been killed in fighting. The Iranians also sent a handful of Russian-built combat aircraft to aid the besieged regime in Baghdad. The Russians also have sent combat aircraft to Iraq. Hezbollah too has sent fighters and advisors to buttress the regime in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has deployed about 700 Special Forces personnel to Iraq to assess Baghdad’s situation, but, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the United States is not coordinating its efforts with the Iranians or the Russians.

Saudi Arabia’s hand is supporting ISIS is more hidden. The Saudis and Arab Gulf states have funneled money and military aid to Syria’s militant Islamists because they despise the Assad regime. And the Gulf Arabs are delighted to see the Baghdad regime in danger because they see Maliki as an Iranian puppet. Informal public opinion polls, moreover, show that Saudi public support for ISIS runs very high. Even in an authoritarian monarchy such as Saudi Arabia, the royal family has to be sensitive to public opinion and to the Wahhabi religious establishment—whose militant interpretation of Islam is near that of ISIS—to ensure the kingdom’s political-Islamic legitimacy.

One would think that the United States would be leading international outrage against the persecution of the Christian communities in the Middle East, but such is not the case. President Obama’s key national security lieutenants—National Security Advisor Susan Rice and American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power—are widely known as assertive advocates for “humanitarian intervention,” and yet both are largely mute about the onslaught on Christians in the Middle East. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounted in Duty that both Rice and Power, along with then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, influenced President Obama to militarily intervene in Libya in 2011 to oust Qaddafi (p. 511). They mistakenly judged that genocide was underway in Libya when it was a civil war with no American national interests at stake. Power, moreover, wrote movingly in her best selling book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide about the genocide of some one million Armenia Christians at the hands of the Turks in 1915.

Pope Francis stands nearly alone as a world leader to denounce the militant Islamic barbarism against Christians in the Middle East. The Holy Father in his Sunday Angelus on 21 July 2014 mourned the Christian flight from Mosul, “They are persecuted: our brothers are persecuted, they are driven out, they have to leave their houses without having the possibility of taking anything with them.” As the “leader of the free world,” President Barak Obama could at least lend his voice to the pope’s to increase international political pressure on regional states to discredit militant Islamic persecution of Middle East Christians, but he remains silent and indifferent.

The calamity of Christians in the Middle East is likely to tragically grow worse in the months ahead. Pope Francis during his May 2014 visit to Jordan praised King Abdullah II for his country’s efforts to promote religious tolerance. But Jordan’s tolerance of its Christian minority would disappear if ISIS were allowed to gain a foothold there. ISIS has already made moves in Iraq along Jordan’s border and would no doubt want to expand its influence into Jordan as well as into Lebanon.

Make no mistake, short of direct and substantial American military intervention on a scale of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there will be no means to repatriate and restore Iraq’s Christian community in the near term. But what the United States and the international community need to be planning for is the provision of limited military forces, especially air power, to establish safe havens for exiled Iraqi Christians. Humanitarian assistance could be distributed in safe havens in Kurdish controlled areas of Iraq and in Jordan to both protect and care for Christians but also to buttress the capacity of Jordan and Kurdistan to bludgeon future ISIS incursions.


  • Richard L. Russell

    Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. A Catholic convert, Russell holds a Ph.D. in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and specializes in foreign policy and international security. He is the author of three books: Sharpening Strategic Intelligence (Cambridge University Press); Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East (Routledge); and, George F. Kennan’s Strategic Thought (Praeger). Follow him on Twitter @DrRLRussell.

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