November 9, 2010 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 645

The Plight of the Iraqi Christians – An Update following the Attack on the Baghdad Church

November 9, 2010 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 645


"The Plight of Iraqi Christians" was the title of a MEMRI document published over five years ago. The document was published during a period of intense sectarian violence that affected many sectors in Iraqi society, but, as we stressed at the time, the Christians "have been specifically targeted by Islamists, who either accuse them of collaborating with the 'invading crusading army' or label them as infidels. As Islamist pressures mounted in Iraq... Christian businesses were destroyed, Christian university students were harassed and Christian women were forced to wear the veil." In the same document, a Christian was quoted as saying: "Some of the Muslims consider us infidels. We are being targeted. They will eat us alive."[1] His premonition has proven to be tragically accurate.

The Attack on the Baghdad Church and the Massacre of Its Parishioners

On the last Sunday of October 2010, a group of terrorists who identified themselves as members of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) mounted a murderous attack on the Our Lady of the Deliverance Church in the Karrada neighborhood in Baghdad, one of the most heavily guarded areas in the capital. About 140 parishioners were in the church at the time, preparing to start their Sunday Mass.

Iraq's special counterterrorism unit, proudly called "the Golden Forces" (al-quwwat al-dhahabiyya), was ordered to free the hostages. In the mêlée that followed, 52 parishioners were killed, including two priests, and 75 others were wounded – which left 80 percent of the parish either injured or dead.

The terrorist unit that stormed the church reportedly consisted of 10 gunmen, some of whom were disguised as policemen. Two were killed by sharpshooters and three blew themselves up; the remaining five, all of them reportedly non-Iraqi Arabs, were arrested.[2] According to one report, among the terrorists killed was the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, but there has been no official confirmation of this report.[3]

Survivors told harrowing stories about the murderous violence of the attackers: they shot a pregnant woman after her gravely wounded husband tried to protect her and the unborn child. Another young man was ordered to convert to Islam because he was going to die anyway, and then was shot in the head. After one priest, Tha'ir Sa'd, was shot to death, a second priest, Wasim Sabih, asked the terrorists why they had shot a peaceful man of God. One of the terrorists answered, "What did you expect us to do?" and proceeded to shoot the second priest to death as well. Most of the parishioners who were killed died when three of the terrorists blew themselves up during the raid by the Iraqi forces. Critics have argued that the members of the special force were not properly trained, and that if they had been more prudent, the high number of casualties could have been avoided.

During the attack on the church, Al-Qaeda delivered an ultimatum to the Coptic Church in Egypt: it gave this church 48 hours to free two Coptic women who allegedly converted to Islam and are being held captive by the Coptic Church – otherwise, the mujahideen would retaliate against Christians in Iraq and elsewhere.[4] Commenting on this demand, columnist Mustafa Zein pointed out that it is somewhat ironic, because, for Al-Qaeda, a woman, Muslim or not, "is not a human being with feelings, emotions, ambitions, and rights. She is a vagina to be covered." Zein suggested that the ultimatum may indicate an intention on the part of Al-Qaeda to launch jihad operations in Egypt. "The Islamists," he stressed, "have erased the Christians from the annals of history, and now they are trying to wipe them off the map."

The Al-Qaeda communiqué issued during the attack described the church as "a corrupt den of polytheism" that has "long been used by the Christians of Iraq as a headquarters of the battle against Islam."

Despite the high death toll, Iraqi Defense Minister 'Abd Al-Qadir Muhammad Al-'Obeidi declared the rescue operation "a great success." He added that the terrorist were "Arabs" and that they spoke to the hostages in Classical Arabic rather than in the Iraqi dialect – indicating they were not Iraqis.[5] He said further that, in response to intelligence that armed groups were planning to target Muslim and Christian places of worship across the country, the security forces had been ordered to protect the churches on Sundays and the mosques on Fridays. The chief of security in Karrada district was arrested by order of the prime minister for dereliction of duty.[6]

Worldwide Condemnation of the Attack

The massacre at the Baghdad church sparked condemnation worldwide, including by the Pope, the U.N. Secretary-General, the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, and the political and religious establishment in Iraq.[7] But perhaps even more significant was the reaction of a number of leading Arab liberals, who not only condemned the attack but sought to link it to what they described as the Muslims' systematic maltreatment of minorities throughout the ages, from the beginnings of Islam. Below are excerpts from some of their writings.

Islam's Treatment of Minorities throughout the Ages

Liberal writer Dr. 'Abd Al-Khaliq Hussein wrote about the suffering of Christians in the Middle East, placing it in the broader context of Islam's treatment of minorities, particularly Christians and Jews, since the time of Muhammad.

Hussein points out that, while Arab writers frequently boast about the tolerant treatment of Christians, Jews, and Sabians in the Muslim world, the reality is actually very different. He shows that while some parts of the Koran and the Hadith advocate tolerance towards non-Muslims, others do not. For example, Koran 3:85 states that "whoever desires a religion other than Islam, it shall not be accepted from him, and in the hereafter he shall be one of the losers."

Dr. Hussein points out further that, throughout Arab and Islamic history, the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims has not been as warm as some claim; in fact, it has often been tragic. Muhammad is recorded as saying that no two religions shall live side by side in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Second Caliph, 'Omar, ordered Christians and Jews to be treated harshly and expelled from the Arabian Peninsula. Prominent medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyya, revered by today's Wahhabis, described churches as polytheist temples, and said that only mosques are houses of Allah. This historical background, says Dr. Hussein, has been exploited by the Wahhabi clerics of Saudi Arabia to persecute non-Muslims, and Al-Qaeda's description of the Baghdad church as "a corrupt den of polytheism" echoes Ibn Taymiyya's teachings.

Dr. Hussein reminds his readers that the massacre in the Baghdad church was not the first attack on Christians in Iraq, and not even the worst. He mentions the 1936 attack by the Iraqi army on the Assyrian Christians, in which at least 3,000 people were killed. He also mentions the infamous "farhoud" of 1941, a murderous attack on the Jews of Iraq in which hundreds were killed or wounded, and which eventually led to the emigration of the Iraqi Jewish community, that had predated Islam by at least 1,000 years. Dr. Hussein maintains that the terrorists, aided by Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, are seeking to empty Iraq of its Christians.[8]

In 2003, Christians constituted 3 percent of the Iraqi population (numbering 1.25-1.5 million). Since then, their numbers have continued to dwindle, and according to one Iraqi source, Christian clerics now estimate their number at no more than 400,000.[9]

The Middle East Is in Danger of Losing Its Christians

Another Iraqi commentator, 'Aziz Al-Hajj, argues that the experience of the Iraqi Christians is no different from that of other Christians in the Middle East, who all suffer blunt discrimination, aggression, abuse of rights, and pressure to emigrate. He points out that since 2003, over 50 churches have been burned or destroyed in Iraq; a cardinal was kidnapped, three priests were murdered, and about 800 Christians have been killed. The emigration of Christians is driven by their realization that if they stay behind, they will at best be second-class citizens. According to Al-Hajj, the number of Palestinian Christians is dwindling too: no more than 50,000 remain in the occupied territories, only 1000 of them in Gaza. Even in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ, the majority of the population is now Muslim.

The Truth about Islamophobia

Al-Hajj points to the difference between the Muslims' reaction to Islamophobia and their reaction to discrimination against non-Muslims in their own countries: When a Western politician makes an Islamophobic remark, or when a Western newspaper publishes what is viewed as offensive cartoons of the Prophet, Muslims scream blue murder. Yet very few raise their voice in defense of Christian Arabs, or call for the equal treatment of Christians and other non-Muslims minorities in Muslim lands.

The article also points out that, in covering the recent Catholic Synod of Eastern Churches, the Arab press focused on one point – the Israeli occupation – but ignored others, such the Synod's call for religious freedom and equality before the law. Al-Hajj mentions that even writers in the London-based daily Al-Hayat, which is considered liberal and fair compared to many other Arab papers, have described the deteriorating status of Middle East Christians as part of an overall problem afflicting both Muslims and Christians in the region. And some writers simply describe Christians and Muslims alike as "victims of Israel."

Al-Hajj highlights the difference between the state of religious minorities in the West and in the Arab countries. In the West, he says, Muslims practice their religion in freedom, and maintain thousands of mosques. Moreover, they are free to spread their religion, and openly celebrate each new convert. In contrast, Christians in the Muslim world are arrested for allegedly trying to spread Christianity, and a Muslim who converts to Christianity may face the death penalty. In the Gulf, Christians are forced to conduct prayers clandestinely at home, in hotels, or in the homes of diplomats, and even this entails a great risk.[10]

The Emigration of Minorities as Reflecting the Intolerance of Middle East Societies

Writing in Al-Hayat, columnist Houssam Itani described the crimes committed against Iraq's Christians as part of a broader problem in Arab society, which is becoming increasingly monolithic in religion and ethnicity, destroying the last vestiges of cultural diversity.

Itani says that, if one considers Al-Qaeda's threats against the Egyptian Copts, the Islamist pressure on the Lebanese Christians to make bitter and dangerous choices, and the aggression against the Christians in Iraq, the only possible way for Christians to escape this "dark environment" is to emigrate .

Itani extrapolates from the plight of the Christians to the plight of all peoples in the region. He maintains that, as a matter of fact, the Christians face a brighter future than the Muslim majority – for the latter can expect a rapid diminishing of political, ethnic, and religious tolerance and openness to the opinion of others. The destruction of the Buddhist statutes in Bamyan, Afghanistan, is a striking example of the kind of religious and cultural intolerance that awaits them, he says.[11]

Itani points out that the emigration of Christians in recent years, and of "other minorities" who left the Middle East in the past century (the reference is most likely to Jews) has coincided with the emigration of many educated and professional Muslims – which is another indication of the rejection of pluralism in the Arab and Muslim world.[12]

The Need to Protect Middle East Christians

A number of columnists and officials underscored the need to protect the Christians in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. Al-Hayat columnist Renda Taqi Al-Din wrote that, while the condemnation of the attack by Muslim clerics in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon was positive and necessary, there is need for clear policies to protect the lives of Christians in the region. She added that the forced emigration of Christians to the west is a troubling phenomenon, because these emigrants are "children of this region, and their presence... is essential to the stability of their homelands." She concluded by saying that "sectarianism is a killer for the future of any country. It is frightening and undermines security... because it opens the doors to blind extremism for the children [of that country], enabling them to become human bombs with greater ease."[13]

In the same vein, the editor of the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Tariq Alhomayed, wrote an editorial titled "Protect Iraq's Christians," in which he stated: "It is imperative for all Iraqis, and not just the government, to protect Iraq's Christians from killing, deportation and all the other kinds of persecution they are experiencing – particularly considering that they have never take part in anti-Iraqi alliances..." Alhomayed laments the failure of the Iraqi government to protect Iraq's Christians in 2003, 2008, and today, and warns that the targeting of minorities "will fragment Iraq and destroy its cultural and political fabric." As a Saudi, Alhomayed is clearly concerned for the safety of the large Sunni minority in Iraq.[14]

The Najaf Marja'iya Joins the Call

The leaders of the Najaf Marja'iya, the world's greatest center of Shi'a scholarship, including ayatollahs 'Ali Al-Sistani, Bashir Al-Najafi, Sayyed Sadeq Al-Husseini Al-Shirazi and Sayyed Muhammad Taqi Al-Muddarasi, likewise called on the Iraqi government to protect the Christian community in Iraq.[15]

Even Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose militia, Jaysh Al-Mahdi, was heavily involved in the 2006-2007 sectarian war in Iraq, including in the targeting of Christians, has called on the Iraqi government to establish special forces to protect places of worship, starting with churches and monasteries.[16]

France Calls a Meeting of the UN Security Council

France took the initiative of calling a meeting of the UN Security Council, scheduled for Tuesday, November 9, to discuss the provision of international protection to the Iraqi Christians.

In response, Cardinal Emanuel Dali, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, lamented years of neglect, particularly by the big powers, which have ignored the situation of the Iraqi Christians and the attacks to which they have been subjected.[17]


The Iraqi Christians are in a state of panic.[18] Archbishop Shlaymon Wardani, assistant to Cardinal Dali, has expressed doubts whether Al-Qaeda alone should be held responsible for the attack on the Baghdad church, and has predicted that Christians will flee – not just to the north of the country, where Christians have historically maintained their largest community, but out of the country. He added, "Every time we find a sense of hope, worse things happen that cause us to slide into despair again."[19]

Columnist Jaber Habib Jaber wrote that the Baghdad attack was "not just another Baghdad tragedy, but a warning bell to alert us to [the campaign] brewing in the region to empty Iraq of its Christians. Such a development would mean turning Iraq into something else – religiously homogenous but with a high degree of fanaticism and readiness for more bloodshed."[20]

* Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli is a senior analyst at MEMRI.


[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 213, "The Plight of Iraqi Christians," March 22, 2005, The Plight of Iraqi Christians.

[2], November 2, 2010.

[3] November 7, 2010.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 6, 2010. See also MEMRI JTTM report: "ISI Attacks Baghdad Church, Threatens to Attack Christians, Churches Throughout Middle East," November 1, 2010,¶m=APT.

[5], November 1, 2010;, November 1,3 , 2010; Al-Zaman, Al-Mada (Iraq), Al-Hayat (London), November 2, 2010.

[6], November 2, 2010.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 3, 2010.

Some in Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, while condemning the attack as incompatible with Islamic values, accused the "Zionists" of being behind it. For example, the online journal Falasteen, which is identified with Hamas, said it was part of a broad campaign by the Jews and the West to target churches and lay the blame on the Muslims – in order to portray Islam as "a terrorist religion" and generate hatred towards its followers. November 3, 2010.

[9], November 3, 2010

[10], November 1, 2010.

[11] Al-Watan (Kuwait), November 2, 2010.

[12] Al-Hayat (London), November 5, 2010.

[13] Al-Hayat (London), November 3, 2010.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 2, 2010.

[15] Al-Hayat (London), November 5, 2010.

[16] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, November 6, 2010.

[17] Al-Zaman (Iraq), November 6, 2010.

[18] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 2, 2010.

[19], November 3, 2010.

[20] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), November 7, 2010.

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