It’s rare to hear Iraq described as “heaven,” but that is how a Christian Iraqi described his hometown in northern Kurdistan after returning to the US from a trip to visit his family there. Electricity, food and clean water are in abundance, and Christians live in peace with their Kurdish neighbors.
In his speech last week, President Obama stressed the United States’ support for universal rights, including the freedom of religion “whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.”
Later in his speech, he presented Iraq as an example of how other countries in the Middle East should proceed:
“In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress.”
Though small villages in the north have prospered in the last two years, Iraq is a peculiar example to present as a model for other Middle Eastern nations, as sectarian violence in parts of Iraq further south, such as Baghdad and Basra, has meant frequent suicide bombings, as well as attacks on mosques and churches since 2003.
Articles 2, 14 and 41 of the new Iraqi constitution, drafted in 2005, prohibit discrimination based on religion and allow for the freedom of religion for all people, including the freedom to worship. Christians, Yazidis and Sabean-Mandeans are named, but they in particular have faced aggressive persecution since the war started in the regions ruled by the Iraqi government.
Obama’s statement applies to the northern parts of Kurdistan. A family from Doore, a small Christian village in the Dahuk principality, described this region of Iraq as free and safe—so safe, in fact, that families leave their doors unlocked and churches are many.
Yet this is not the case for all Iraqis. Christians in Baghdad have fled in great numbers, having been persecuted
individually and at church. In late 2010 Our Lady of Salvation Church was attacked by Al-Qaida in Iraq members, causing the death of about sixty people.
Dr. Erica C D Hunter, Lecturer in Eastern Christianity at the Department for the Study of Religions in the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, told me in a phone interview that there were 50,000 Mandeans in Iraq before the 2003 invasion. The community had lived in Iraq for about two thousand years. Now their numbers are less than 3,000. When she visited Iraq in 2002, Dr. Hunter found the synagogue in Baghdad well kept, and about 50 members still there. Now only seven or eight remain.
Though the Iraqi constitution stipulates the protection of religious minorities and their rights to practice their
religions freely, the US army and the Iraqi government have not been able to stop the violence against religious minorities, and they seem to be doing little to find a solution to sectarian violence that has effected these minorities.
Individuals and religious leaders, who before the war never asked their neighbors’ religious affiliation, continue to see their Iraqi brothers and sisters as equals. Michael Nazir-Ali of The Guardian writes about St. George’s Church, whose doors are always open to non-Christians. Its medical services are available to anyone who walks in regardless of ethnicity or faith, and Muslims often seek advice and counseling there.
Eight years after the fall of Saddam, Iraq remains a volatile country rife with sectarian violence. Many Iraqis live without electricity, medication and clean water, and they fear for their lives. But we can hope that there will come a day soon when the Christians of Baghdad will have the security and peace of mind that their brothers in the Dahuk province enjoy. Until then, one hopes the rest of the Middle East will not follow in Iraq’s footsteps.