This column first appeared in the Des Moines Register on March 7, 2007.
Christians around the world are currently observing Lent, a time of reflection and prayer before Easter and a period that symbolically commemorates 40 days that Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. Lent this year comes at a moment of crisis for some of the oldest Christian communities in the world, especially for Christians in Iraq.
Internal conflicts there have led to the death of tens of thousands since 2003, contributing to the largest refugee crisis in the Middle East since 1948. Nearly 4 million Iraqis are now refugees or internally displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with Christians disproportionately among those forced to flee their homes.
The American mismanagement of Iraq has been particularly unkind to Christians. Militant gangs and terrorist groups target Christians for assault, murder, rape and kidnapping. One vivid example of the brutal violence is last October’s murder of a prominent Syrian Orthodox priest whose beheaded body was found in the northern city of Mosul.
This campaign of intimidation and violence includes extremist fire bombings of dozens of churches, attacks on the heart of local Christian communities. In today’s Iraq, Christians and other small religious minority groups lack the strength in numbers, the armed militias and the foreign support that the different communities in Iraq’s Muslim majority possess.
While conservatives in America have warned of a cultural war against Christians by liberals and secularists in the United States, an actual war of attrition on Christians is unfolding in Iraq. Indeed, the plight of Iraq’s Christians points to a cruel irony – an American president whose tight grip on conservative Christian voters at home helped propel him to the White House has stood by and watched the destruction of some of the world’s oldest Christian communities.
President Bush’s strategic mistakes have left Christian communities in Iraq and increasingly throughout the Middle East to pay a deadly price. His first mistake was to forget that security and law and order are the basic foundations for freedom. “Freedom’s untidy,” Bush’s former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld glibly noted when asked about the widespread looting in Iraq in early 2003. This attitude opened the door to the chaos we see today in Iraq.
Bush’s second mistake was to advance a narrow definition of freedom. His central proposition – that promoting democracy narrowly defined as elections would defeat terrorism and extremism – has backfired.
Terrorist groups such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories have seized the reins of power and radical Islamist leaders such as Muqtada Al-Sadr have gained a stronger voice in Iraq, cynically tying their hateful ideologies to economic support of suffering people. Opening the doors to these extremists has put Christian minorities in harm’s way in other places. In Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, Islamist fundamentalists have exploited the increased chaos to target Palestinian Christians with violence and intimidation. Lebanese Christians have been leaving the country in increasing numbers in the aftermath of escalation violence and last summer’s war.
This dismal situation in the Middle East prompted Pope Benedict XVI recently to encourage Christians to be “courageous and steadfast” and avoid the temptation to leave the region. These are hardly the results that Bush had hoped for when he used is second inaugural address to set forth a new national security strategy “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world” and in his repeated calls for religious freedom.
The next president of the United States will face the difficult task of helping advance stability in the Middle East without turning away from the noble goal of advancing freedom in the world – to promote law and order without succumbing to America’s historic addiction to repressive dictators and autocrats in the Middle East. This will be no easy task, but without continued and smarter U.S. involvement, some of the oldest Christian communities in the world don’t have a prayer.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow on the national security team at the Center for American Progress, lived and worked in the Middle East for several years. John Podesta, president of the center, previously served as chief of staff to President William Clinton.