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Blood of Iraqi Martyrs By: Kenneth R. Timmerman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 25, 2007


There is another tragedy taking in place in Iraq on a daily basis, far from the front pages and the TV news. It does not involve the kidnapping of U.S. troops, nor even the fire-bombing of Muslim shrines by other Muslims, both of which by now are familiar to most Americans.

This is a tragedy taking place in a total media vacuum. Even our government has remained silent as it continues.

Perhaps it’s because the victims are Christians. Indeed, members of the most ancient Christian communities in the world.

Over the past three years, Iraqi Muslim extremists have targeted Christians in systematic attacks, aimed at driving them from their homes, their work places, and their churches.

Just last week, a group of armed Muslims set fire to St. George’s Assyrian Church in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad, completely decimating what remained of a church already hit by a deadly fire-bombing in October 2004.

It was the 27th church to have been destroyed by Muslim gangs since the liberation of Iraq from Saddam and his thugs.

“The bombing of St. George’s Church should leave no doubt in any one’s mind that a process of ethnic cleansing has begun,” the Rev. Dr. Keith Roderick of Christian Solidarity International told me.

“Unfortunately, the US has put very little pressure on the Iraqi government to establish, as guaranteed by provisions in the Iraqi constitution, an autonomous federal unit of self governance and security for these minorities,” he said.

Father Roderick has been a tireless advocate for Iraq’s martyred Christians. Through Christian Solidarity International, he works closely with Christian communities throughout the Muslim world as they struggle against repression and persecution.

The May 16 attack is only the latest in a series of measures by Islamic militants aimed at forcing Christians to leave Iraq.

“There are estimates that nearly 50% of the Christians of Iraq have been forced to flee into exile,” Father Roderick said. “It is lamentable that the international community and the US have not treated this terrible human dilemma with an urgent response.”

Early this week, the Rev. Temathaus Eisha, pastor of the Church of St. Shimoni, said that his church  was the last one in the entire Assyrian quarter that still conducted services. The other churches, including a number of monasteries, had all been abandoned.

The Christians of Iraq include Chaldeans, Syriac Orthodox, and Assyrians. All trace their roots to the early church and use a liturgy still written and sung in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

Peter BetBasoo of the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) has been following closely the plight of his fellow Assyrians in Iraq. The stories that he and his news agency tell of Christian martyrdom in Iraq are chilling.

“Over the past 30 days, al-Qaeda has moved into the Dora neighborhood and started to collect the jizya,” he said. “They are telling the Assyrian families who remain in the area they must pay this protection money, or leave.”

The Jizya, sometimes referred to as a “head tax” or a “protection tax,” was instituted by the Prophet Mohammad in the Koran on non-Muslims as a means of enforcing their submission to Muslim rule. Those who refused to pay the jizya were to be killed.

The “Islamic State in Iraq,” a Sunni insurgent governing council dominated by al-Qaeda, recently appointed a local imam, Hatym al-Rizeq, as its “Prince” for the al-Dora neighborhood. He began demanding that Christian Assyrians pay the jizya last month.

According to AINA, al Qaeda units moved into the Dora area recently from al-Anbar province, where they were fleeing the U.S. security sweep.

The Dora neighborhood, some six miles southwest from central Baghdad, “seems to be abandoned by both Iraqi and Coalition” forces, AINA reported last month, when the mass exodus of Christians began.

Over the past week, U.S. forces have scoured the surrounding area in search of two missing U.S. soldiers who are believed to have survived a kidnapping by insurgents linked to al-Qaeda.

“We talked to many people within the American Embassy and the Iraqi Government, but it seems nobody really cares, because they have done nothing” to stop the anti-Christian violence, one al-Dora resident told AINA.

Another Dora resident, who is now a refugee in Syria, said he had spoken to a family who recently fled the neighborhood after “terrorists knocked on their door” and demanded that they pay the jizya to support the insurgents. If they refused to pay the tax, they were told to convert to Islam, “or leave the house within 24 hours or else be killed.”

That is in keeping with Koran 9:29, which exhorts Muslim to “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold forbidden that which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”

Al Qaeda is demanding that Christians pay 250,000 dinars (around $200) for the right to remain in their own homes, a sum equivalent to an average month’s salary in Iraq, AINA said.

"Christians in Iraq are on their way to extinction, cut off from the country's political process," said Father Bashar Warda, newly-appointed rector of the St Peter Major Seminary, which has moved from Baghdad to Ankawa in Iraqi Kurdistan for security reasons.

Ankawa has become known as the “city of Christ”  because of the new refugees crowding the city.

When asked why nothing had been done since the liberation to protect Iraqi Christians, Father Warda blamed “the indifference of Iraqi leaders. They do not consider us as belonging to this nation.”

He said that other Iraqi groups take advantage of Christians “because we have no outside support or our own militia. They know that all we can do is make appeals and complain. [Iraqi] politicians act convinced that our community is bound to disappear in a few years.”

William J. Murray, chairman of the conservative Religious Freedom Coalition, tells me that he has called on President George W. Bush to “step forward and protect the Christians that have been placed in such grave danger by our actions in Iraq, even if the sole solution is to grant immediate asylum to all of them.”

The instability “caused in Iraq by our failed attempt to install a democracy has decimated the Christian community,” Murray added.

Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of the Barnabas Fund, issued an appeal on May 11  to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and to U.S. leaders.

He recalled during a recent visit to Baghdad speaking to a Christian minister who had appealed to the local American military commander to beg for protection for Christians. “The answer he got was, ‘We are not here to protect you.”

Christian Solidarity International estimates that 100,000 Assyrian Christians have fled Iraq for Jordan, where the government refuses to grant them refugee status and has closed church schools because they are “teaching Christianity.” Many more have fled for Syria.

In 1987, the Christian population of Iraq was 1.4 million, Father Keith Roderick said. “Today it is estimated to bet between 600,000 and 800,000.”

Dora is not the only area in Iraq where Christians are being persecuted. Over the past two years, churches have been attacked or firebombed throughout Iraq, priests kidnapped, and women murdered, Father Roderick said.

Last October, an Iraqi priest, Father Boulos Iskander, was kidnapped and murdered near Mosul. His kidnappers placed his severed head on top of his chest, and his severed arms and legs around his head.

“The US military has rushed in to rebuild schools and mosques,” Father Roderick said. “It remains to be seen how quickly they will rush in to assist the beleaguered Christians rebuild their losses, such as St. George’s.”

Writing about the persecution of the early church by the Emperor Nero, Tertullian famously wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

By this, he didn’t mean that the martyrdom was optional. He meant that it was a necessary condition for the advancement of the Christian faith.

Those are tough words – and a tough concept – for the families of those martyrs, who have watched in horror as their loved ones have been murdered and their corpses mutilated and defiled.

But they may be the only consolation to this story.

Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, and author of Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran (Crown Forum: 2005).


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