Christianity May Be Eradicated in Iraq and Afghanistan, Says Chair of U.S. Religious Freedom Commission

December 22, 2011 - 6:48 PM
Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church

A photo taken with a mobile phone at Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad, Iraq, after it was attacked during Mass in 2010. (AP Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Despite long-term U.S. military occupations aimed at establishing representative governments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Christianity now faces the real threat of eradication in those countries because of severe and persistent persecution of Christians there, according to the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Similarly, despite the “Arab Spring” rebellion in Egypt earlier this year, the survival of Christianity is also threatened in that country because of the escalating persecution of Christians.

“We are looking at two different countries where the United States invaded, occupied, changed their governments in the last decade--Iraq and Afghanistan--where it’s possible Christianity might be eradicated in our lifetime?” CNSNews.com asked USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo in a video interview.

“Yes,” said Leo, “and, unfortunately, that is sort of the pattern throughout the Middle Eastern region. The flight of Christians out of the region is unprecedented and it’s increasing year by year. It’s a very, very alarming situation.”

In Egypt, according to Leo, anti-Christian violence and discrimination may inspire a mass migration of that nation’s Coptic Christian population, thus achieving a strategic goal sought by radical Muslims.

“The radical Islamists would accomplish their goal, if they drove the Coptic Christians out of the country, absolutely,” Leo told CNSNews.com in an Online With Terry Jeffrey interview.

[To see the entire interview, click on the video below. Note well: At the time the interview was taped it was unclear whether Congress would reauthorize USCIRF. Last Friday, Congress did pass legislation to do so, and the commission will remain in existence.]

Leo, who also serves as vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, was initially appointed and reappointed to USCIRF by President George W. Bush, and most recently was reappointed again by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.).

In its official report published earlier this year, USCRIF said that Christian leaders in Iraq were themselves warning of the end of Christianity in their country.

Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church

Mass is celebrated at Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad a month after it was attacked during Mass. (AP Photo)

“Half or more of the pre-2003 Iraqi Christian community is believed to have left the country, with Christian leaders warning that the consequence of this flight may be the end of Christianity in Iraq,” USCIRF said in its annual report. “In 2003, there were thought to be 800,000 to 1.4 million Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East members, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), Protestants, and Evangelicals in Iraq. Today, community leaders estimate the number of Christians to be around 500,000.”

Iraqi Christians have been targeted by murderous attacks in recent years, according to USCIRF. In 2010, for example, al Qaeda in Iraq terrorists killed 50 people and wounded 60 more, during Mass, at a Catholic church in Baghdad. Among those the terrorists killed were two priests. In the months following the massacre, a series of bombing attacks on homes in Baghdad killed at least seven Christians and wounded 50 more. Christians were also shot to death in Baghdad and Mosul, while 70 Christian students were injured by a roadside bomb attack on a convoy of buses taking them to a university in Mosul.

A Christian cardiologist was attacked by gunmen who targeted him at the medical clinic where he worked.

Candles for victims

A woman lights a candle for the victims of the attack on Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad. (AP Photo)

According to Leo, the Iraqi government has not taken adequate steps to protect Christians or prosecute those who attack them.

“One of the big problems from the very beginning was that our country and others were unwilling to acknowledge that the fight in Iraq was largely a sectarian conflict and there wasn’t enough emphasis placed on the flight of Christians and other religious minorities, particularly in the northern part of Iraq,” said Leo.

“So, the strategy didn’t take into account the fact that you were going to have a huge, huge flight of Christians out of the country, and then you were going to have the same kind of impunity or privately driven violence that we were talking about in Pakistan, but this time in Iraq,” Leo said.

“That is precisely what has happened,” he said. “So, it is very ironic that here we are trying to stabilize and democratize a country and at the same time we are losing large percentages of religious minorities … which have always been such an important part of the Iraqi fabric of society, holding it together. And so that is a very, very serious problem.”

CNSNews.com asked Leo what kind of leverage and what types of instruments the U.S. would have to protect the Christian population in Iraq once President Obama had withdrawn all U.S. forces from the country.

“I have no idea,” Leo said. “I’m very, very concerned about what will happen after our presence is completely gone, and I don’t know how we continue to put pressure on the Iraqi government and on the security forces and others in Iraq to protect the Christians in the absence of any presence.”

USCIRF asked that the State Department officially name Iraq as a “country of particular concern” for the lack of religious freedom there, but the State Department declined to do so.

Copt protester in Egypt

An Egyptian Christian protesting an attack on a Coptic church. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

In Afghanistan, Leo says, a constitution that was drafted with the help of the United States government has effectively given the Afghan government license to deny religious liberty to people who adhere to minority faiths, including Christianity.

“Conditions for religious freedom remain exceedingly poor for minority religious communities and dissenting members of the majority faith, despite the presence of U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan for almost 10 years and the substantial investment of lives, resources, and expertise by the United States and the international community,” says the USCIRF report. “The 2004 Afghan constitution has effectively established Islamic law as the law of the land.”

“In the past year,” says the USCIRF report, “the small and vulnerable Christian community experienced a spike in government arrests, with Christians being detained and some jailed for the crime of apostasy.”

The State Department has reported that in March 2010 the last public Christian church in Afghanistan was razed.

“This is one of the saddest cases that we look at every year,” said Leo.

“Speaking personally, I wrote a separate opinion in the case of Afghanistan,” he said. “I think one of the sources of the problem was way back when we helped hammer out a constitution for the new Afghanistan. In that constitution, there is what we call a repugnancy clause, which basically says anything that’s inconsistent with Sharia principles is violative of this constitution. That clause, no matter what else is in the constitution, basically forecloses the kind of reform that you’re looking for, because any extreme religious sub-sect can impose its radical view of Sharia and enshrine it in the constitutional system in Afghanistan. And if that’s the kind of government system they have, there is no real way to ensure freedom of religion broadly speaking. There’s no way to ensure that religious minorities are going to have freedom in law.”

Leo is uncertain religious freedom can ever recover in Afghanistan from the damage done by the new Afghan constitution.

“The constitution drafting process with which we were involved was a disaster and I’m not sure Afghanistan can ever fully recover from the damage that we inflicted by not holding the line on the kind of constitution drafting that we should have been pushing for,” he said.

He rejects the argument made by those who point to language elsewhere in Afghanistan’s Constitution that says Afghanistan will abide by international agreements that call for respecting human rights.

CNSNews.com asked: “So Islamic apostasy laws that hold it a capital offense for someone to convert to Christianity are legitimate under the Afghan constitution as it was written?”

“Yeah,” said Leo. “There are cute-by-half scholars who will tell you that it’s not because there is another provision in the constitution that says they’ll abide by international agreements. Those who know how the world really works will tell you that a repugnancy clause is what it says. It is a repugnancy clause that trumps everything else in the constitution. So the bottom line is even though Afghanistan has been a party to a lot of these international agreements, they have essentially reserved on them and they have created their own distinctions and I don’t think there is really any hope that the country is going to begin abiding by those human rights agreements.

“And they do in fact prosecute people for apostasy?” asked CNSNews.com.

“They do,” said Leo, pointing out that “there were a couple of instances over the past year where Christian converts where quietly released--thanks to the U.S.”

“So are we looking at an Afghanistan where after the United States leaves Christianity is eradicated there?” asked CNSNews.com

“Unfortunately I think that’s where things are headed,” said Leo.

Egypt, he says, is headed down a similar path.

Leo and follow religious freedom commissioners, Nina Shea and Elizabeth Prodromou, filed a separate statement attached to the section of the full commission’s report that focuses on Egypt.

“We write separately to underscore the concern that Egypt is on a trajectory that is part of a broader trend toward the irreparable and severe diminution of Christian and religious minority populations,” the three commissioners said.

“In several countries covered in this report—Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey—the non-Muslim religious minority communities are facing existential threats while experiencing varying degrees and manifestations of intolerance and injustice,” they said.

“By far, the largest non-Muslim minority community among these countries is Egypt’s Copts, numbering  between 8 million and 12 million,” they wrote. “A year and a half ago, Coptic worshippers were massacred during a Christmas Eve attack on their church in Naga Hammadi in southern Egypt.

“This year,” the commissioners said, “a crowded church near Alexandria was bombed by militants at New Year, and several Coptic villages have been targeted by pogrom-like mob violence. Attacks against Copts were carried out largely with impunity under an indifferent Mubarak regime. A recent announcement that the rising Muslim Brotherhood movement would seek the imposition of Islamic law in Egypt is now sending shock waves through the Coptic community.”

In October, after the USCIRF report was published, a crowd of Coptic Christians in Cairo protesting the burning of a Coptic church were attacked by Egyptian security forces, operating under the authority of the post-Mubarak regime, who reportedly shot and killed 24 protesters and wounded 300 more.

“The Arab spring got a cold snap,” says Leo, “and the bottom line is I’m not sure whether there is going to be much of a crop at the end of the day.”

“With what’s going on in Egypt, with the uncertainties that exist, there’s very little incentive for a young Coptic Christian to stay in the county,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you saw the same basic trajectory in Egypt that you see in quite a number of other countries which is to say they just get up and they leave.”

“The problem is that even under Mubarak, the courts, the prosecutors, the police weren’t really investigating and bringing to justice the people who are really doing this kind of stuff,” said Leo. “But then you have to compound that problem with you may actually have a government that steps up the official repression of religion.”

“You may see laws that may further restrict the kinds of churches or other gathering places that Christians can have,” said Leo. “You could potentially see upticks in discrimination against Coptic Christians in hiring and in education. Those are the kinds of things that the Coptics really have to be worried about. They are a fairly successful community in Egypt, so if they start seeing state repression through discriminatory laws, that’s going to create huge incentives for the Coptic Christian community to up and leave--especially the younger ones who feel they have a bright future ahead of them.”

For the first time ever, USCIRF recommended this year that the State Department list Egypt as a “country of particular” for its denial of religious freedom.

The State Department declined to do so.

Leo argues that the administration must find a way soon to get the Egyptian government to protect its own Christian population or it will be too late.

“There needs to be a tie-in between the enormous aid we give to Egypt and the protection of communities,” said Leo. “We haven’t seen that tie in yet. And it is complicated because security and police forces are not what they should be. And it’s not clear how you would funnel transitional aid and support to help deal with this problem. But we’ve got to start putting on the problem-solving hat and really trying to figure this out and we need to step up our efforts here."

“We’ve seen frustration on the part of the administration that they are just not sure how to do this,” said Leo. “I understand it and I’m sympathetic to it. But it’s time to try to harness some of that frustration to some entrepreneurial and edgy ideas that get the Egyptian government where it needs to be--and those probably need to be behind the scenes. And that’s’ fine, but something has to be done and has to be done now.

“There is very little time left,” he said.