The only Christians who remain in Iraq are those too old or too poor to attempt to escape, many of the Iraqi refugees I interviewed last September in Amman Jordan assured me. They said after years of threats, kidnappings, bombings and murders they would never return, had no reason to return, would never feel safe in Iraq again. Yesterday’s horrible events at the Sayidat al-Nejat (Our Lady of Salvation) Syrian Catholic cathedral in Baghdad seemed to drive home that certainty: is the 2,000 year old Christian community in Iraq doomed?
The death toll from a hostage standoff at the church has risen to 58; 75 others were wounded in the attack by armed gunmen Sunday, apparently most of the casualties were women and children. Two priests were also among the dead as well as 17 Iraqi security officers and five gunmen. The New York Times reports: “Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, the defense minister, said that most of the hostages were killed or wounded when the kidnappers set off at least two suicide vests as they took over the church. He defended the decision to storm the building, saying, ‘This was a successful operation with a minimum of casualties, and killing all the terrorists.’”
It is unclear if the church was a planned target or the unfortunate collateral damage on an attack on the Iraqi stock exchange nearby. But a statement posted on a Web site operated by militants late on Sunday, the Islamic State of Iraq took responsibility for the attack, calling the church “ the dirty den of idolatry.” The posting said the attack had been prompted in part by the behavior of the Coptic Church in Egypt, which it accused of detaining two women who converted to Islam. It added more menacingly that “the fuse of a campaign against Iraqi Christians had been lit,” according to the NY Times.
There are thousands of Chaldean Catholics and other Christians from Iraq now living in Jordan. Thousands more are in transit around the world, their families broken up, living in Europe and the United States or Canada, journeying to any country which will accept them. Those who do make it to a regional safe harbor like Jordan are not officially recognized as refugees and unable to legally accept work (those who do take jobs illegally and are caught doing it are quickly deported back to Iraq) and their children cannot attend state schools. As a result many miss years of schooling while their parents try to acquire legal status in Jordan or asylum in a third nation.
This terrible bloodshed will certainly drive thousands more Christians out of Iraq. Last year one analyst interviewed by Christian Science Monitor said that the Christian community in Iraq, facing an “existential crisis,” would likely only be a memory in 20 years. His assessment may prove foolishly optimistic.
Most of the Iraqis that I spoke with in Jordan flatly assigned the blame for their suffering on the American decision to invade Iraq in March 2003. It is odd to hear people speak nostalgically of Saddam Hussein, but in light of the sectarian targeting of Iraqi Christians that quickly followed his removal from power, it is perhaps understandable. As one of the authors of their current crisis, is it not incumbent on the United States to do more to resettle the Christian community it has dislodged? So far we are simply not doing much more than sending checks to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Here's what's reported by our State Department on the issue of iraqi resettlement in the United States. Bear in mind these figures represent ALL Iraqi resettlements—so far mostly Iraqis who actually worked for the United States and their immediate family members—not resettlements of Iraqi Chaldeans and other Christians:
In Fiscal Year 2009 (October 1, 2008 through September 30, 2009), the U.S. admitted 18,838 Iraqi refugees; in Fiscal Year 2008, the U.S. admitted 13,823 Iraqi refugees; 12,118 in fiscal 2007 and between October 1, 2006 and September 30, 2007, the U.S. admitted 1,608 Iraqis.