‘Canaries in the Middle Eastern Coal Mine’

During this campaign, we've heard a lot of talk about Iraq. And regardless of who wins, we'll continue the conversation for years to come. Yet there's a topic neither candidate has addressed. It's a question that brings up one of the key moral issues in this election, religious freedom: that is, the treatment of Iraq's most vulnerable group, the indigenous Christian population. Iraq is home to approximately 800,000 Christians. These Christians, known as Chaldeans and Assyrians, are unique in many ways. As their name implies, they are descended from the people who built the biblical cities of Babylon and Nineveh. A bit closer to our time, their ancestors were among the first peoples outside of Palestine to embrace Christianity. An in fact, some of them still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The coming of Islam turned them into an often-persecuted minority. In the early twentieth century, the Turks and then the Iraqi army killed thousands of these Christians and drove many more into exile. The Baathist Party was even worse. According to Nina Shea of Freedom House, they destroyed more than two hundred Christian villages between 1960 and 1988. As result of the discrimination, more than half of Iraq's Christians have left in the past forty years. The ousting of Saddam Hussein presents Iraqi Christians with a chance for a new start, one good result of the U.S. invasion you'll never hear discussed in the press. The interim law in post-Saddam Iraq includes a provision, Article 53D, creating a safe haven for Iraq's Christians. And they'll need one. On October 12, Islamic extremists killed a ten-year-old Christian boy while shouting, "We've come to exterminate you. This is the end for you Christians!" Prior to that, Christians "were murdered for ‘collaborating' with the United States. . . . Christian girls [have been] assaulted with acid for not wearing the veil." And "Christian homes [have been] targeted by mortar attacks that killed and injured children sleeping in their beds." All of this, as Shea rightly says, makes implementing Article 53D a must. We must act, not just because of religious freedom, but because Iraqi Christians are, as Shea writes, important for "developing a pluralistic and democratic society," which is, after all, America's goal. Christians constitute "one of the most politically modern, skilled, and educated communities in Iraq today," according to Shea. Even worse than the potential "brain drain" is what Shea calls the "sane drain." Without a "sizeable non-Muslim minority," Iraqis who oppose an Islamic state will find their task all the more difficult. They will face even greater intimidation from Islamic extremists. It's also important to remember that Iraq isn't the only Arabic country with a Christian minority. Lebanon and Egypt, among others, are watching what happens in Iraq. That's why Nina Shea calls Iraq's Christians "the canaries in the Middle Eastern coal mine." And it's why we must stay the course in Iraq. As we go to the polls, Christians must make sure that we elect leaders who won't neglect religious liberty either in Iraq or anywhere else in our troubled world. For further reading and information: Nina Shea, "Canary in a Coal Mine," National Review Online, 14 October 2004. Learn more about Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. "'We Are in the Modern Catacombs,' Says Young Iraqi Catholic," Zenit News, 26 October 2004. Yochi J. Dreazen, "Iraq Sees Christian Exodus," Wall Street Journal, 27 September 2004, A17. Scott Peterson, "Iraqi Christians struggle to stay," Christian Science Monitor, 18 October 2004. Robert H. Reid, "Five Churches, Hospital Bombed in Baghdad," Washington Post, 16 October 2004. "Agency says Iraqi Christians, targeted by fanatics, fleeing country," CNS, 6 October 2004. Daniel Pipes, "Christians Disappearing from Iraq," New York Sun, 24 August 2004. Christopher Hitchens, "The New Enemy of Humanity," The Mirror (London), 26 October 2004. BreakPoint Commentary No. 030813, "A Just Peace: The Need for Religious Liberty in Iraq." BreakPoint Commentary No. 040916, "Thinking about Vietnam: Hanoi and the Church." Paul Chu, "The Towers and the Church," Godspy, 8 September 2004. Nina Shea, In the Lion's Den (Broadman and Holman, 1997).


Chuck Colson


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