The Last Christian

If Iraq continues to lose its Christian population, it may never again be the pluralistic society it once was

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George, a dear Iraqi Christian friend of mine, has just left Iraq for good, on a one-way ticket to France, along with every single member of his family. This decision did not come easily to George. His departure was driven by serious safety concerns for himself and his family, fears that had been building even before the arrival of ISIS in the country. As a friend who cares deeply about him, I am happy that George is now safe in France. As an Iraqi, however, it breaks my heart a thousand times that the country is loosing almost its entire Christian population. This will permanently change not just the demographics but also the social fabric of a country that will never again be the pluralistic society it once was.

Like many Iraqi Christians, George correctly saw himself as one of the original people of Iraq. Christians lived in the land for centuries before the concept of Iraq as a nation state even existed. Throughout this time the Christian community was respected and protected, with churches spread across the country, representing Christianity’s ancient stories and architectural expression. Growing up in Baghdad, I remember these churches with fondness, as I frequented them with my Christian friends, especially during exam times. It didn’t matter that I was a Muslim. Christian and Muslim students went to the churches to light candles and pray that we’d pass our exams. We never questioned our differences.

I remember the Christian holidays with similar fondness. The teachers talked to the majority Muslim students about our Christian classmates’ celebrations and rituals, and how we should all support them in their practices. In fact, we visited our Christian neighbors and they visited us frequently to celebrate each other’s holidays and exchange all the goodies I loved as a child, from gifts to candy. And I personally happened to have Christians as my closest and best friends in Iraq. Throughout my life in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Iraq, I only remember positive narratives about the Christian community, and these memories are entwined with my love for the pluralism that characterized Iraqi society. Most unfortunately, such values are no longer upheld in Iraq.

George agonized over his decision to leave. He first noticed the difference months after the invasion in 2003, when members of his church started receiving kidnapping and death threats for distributing humanitarian aid to people within his neighborhood. This rattled many of the community members, but not George. He kept on saying, “This is our country. We are all Iraqis.” When he introduced me to a Christian widow who kept her four teenage daughters in a basement, refusing to let them leave for fear of their being kidnapped or raped, George kept on encouraging her not to fear. (In the end, he helped her relocate to Northern Iraq, where many of the Christians gravitated to a small village, a safe haven since 2004).

George was shaken when an explosion left scraps of dead worshipers’ bodies all over the church he attended. Yet, even after that, he still insisted, “This is our country. We are all Iraqis. We are not leaving.” The situation continued to deteriorate over the years. The government was not paying attention to the safety of the Christian community and ignored all of their pleas for protection. Friends of mine started facing discrimination in the workplace for being Christians. And when George reported thefts he encountered to the police, he was met with laughter and ridicule for being upset.

Aware of this reality, George kept his emotions under control and kept on saying, “I am Iraqi. Christians are part of the Iraqi society.” But then ISIS came and started destroying churches, converting them to mosques, raping Christian women and forcing conversion to Islam. Everyone was scrambling for his or her own safety in Iraq. The Christian community realized that they had no protection whatsoever—that they would be the first to go and the last to be defended. Some even asked for arms so they could defend themselves from attacks.

Finally, George wrote me a sad email, in March of 2015: “We are leaving.” He described the news as bittersweet, a surrender following a long fight for values and a sense of belonging. “We just can’t be safe here anymore. It is beyond our livelihood or even safety. It is our own existence that is at threat.”

Fighting for ideals and values in the abstract is one thing. Confronting the very personal and immediate consequences of those values is quite another matter. George fought for his values all the way to the end. It is not he who failed—All of Iraqi society and the Iraqi government failed him and every Christian in Iraq. A country is as good as its treatment of its minority and marginalized populations, whether religious minorities or women. The so-called new Iraq failed both groups.

George is now safe in France where he has been granted asylum. It is Iraq that is forever diminished by the loss of George and the country’s Iraqi Christians.


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