It was the second week in January of 1991. I was in the sanctuary of a large Catholic Church in Baghdad. Every votive candle in the place was lit, no doubt in support of prayers for loved ones in anticipation of the massive U.S. bombing campaign, which was to be known as "Operation Desert Storm," that was soon to commence. A member of our group asked the priest whose side the church would be on in the forthcoming conflict. He replied that "the Church can only be on one side. That of the victims."
Little did he realize that, fewer than 20 years later, Iraq's Christians would become among the greatest victims.
At that time, there were nearly 1 million Christians in Iraq. While anyone who openly challenged Saddam Hussein's government would be subjected to repression, as a decidedly secular regime there was no fear of being persecuted as Christians. Indeed, Christians played prominent roles in Saddam's government, including that of foreign minister and vice-president.
As a result of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled that secular government and brought to power a coalition led by Shiite Muslim fundamentalist parties and created a backlash by Sunni Muslim extremists, the Christian community in Iraq has been reduced by more than half. Except for a tiny enclave in the autonomous Kurdish region, there were no active al Qaeda cells in Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion. They have since become a major threat, having massacred hundreds of Iraqi Christians since the United States "liberated" Iraq, including 60 worshippers at a church in October. Though many of us familiar with Iraq predicted just this kind of extremist backlash in the event of an invasion of Iraq, President Bush -- backed by such key Democrats as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry -- went ahead with the war anyway, including an occupation which deliberately exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions. (See my article "The US Role in Iraq's Sectarian Violence.")
Christmastide is the time of year when the Western media focuses some attention on the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East. There is a special place in the hearts of those of us who share that tradition with these descendents of the first Christians. Ironically, however, the plight of Arab Christians is often used by the right to demonize the Islamic faith and to rationalize the very policies which have led to their oppression and exodus in the first place.
The U.S.-backed Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak has increased its persecution of the country's Coptic Christian minority, numbering nearly 6 million. Meanwhile, the U.S.-backed Saudi regime denies the right of Christians to worship openly. Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim counterparts, have suffered greatly under a U.S.-backed Israeli occupation, with the majority forced into exile.
Perhaps the Middle Eastern country where Christians are safest is under the autocratic but secular Assad regime in Syria, where they number close to 2 million, roughly 10 percent of the population. Yet the United States has targeted that regime with punitive sanctions and threats to topple the government. A 2005 bill strengthening U.S. sanctions declared that Syria constitutes a "threat to the national security of the United States," language identical to resolutions that targeted Iraq prior to the invasion of that country. Human rights activists fear a U.S.-backed overthrow of the Syria's secular government could result in sectarian strife and a rise of extremism comparable to what took place in Iraq.
Prior to 20th-century Western intervention, Christian and Jewish minorities in the Islamic world -- considered "people of the Book" due to their worship of the same God as Muslims -- fared relatively well, certainly better than Muslim and Jewish minorities in Europe. "Allah" is simply the Arabic word for God, spoken both in mosques and in Arabic-speaking Christian churches. More than a century of Western colonialism, however, followed by more recent U.S. interventions, has severely weakened this traditional tolerance.
So whenever you read the sanctimonious articles regarding the plight of Arab Christians, rather than simply bemoan the intolerance of Islamic extremists, let's remember the role of Washington in supporting repressive regimes and creating the backlash that threatens them.