The Churches of the Middle East and the Challenges of the War in Iraq
To say it positively, the churches in Iraq and the region have been faced with new challenges in their ministries since and as a result of the American invasion to of Iraq. To put it differently, they have been faced with big and serious problems they neither needed nor for which they were prepared. The war has indeed created a serious problem for the churches, which were already struggling to survive and maintain as active a presence and witness as possible.
The stated purpose of the war was to save Iraqis, create a better Iraq, and secure Iraq’s neighbors and the world from WMD. Five years after the invasion has this been accomplished? No WMD have being found, are the neighbors of Iraq more secure, even as they have been flooded with almost 2.5 million refugees? Are the Iraqis safer and more secure? A report early this year from a well-known international agency said that over one million Iraqis have being killed since the invasion. Is the US more safe and secure? The answers to these questions, from a Middle Eastern perspective, are that the war against Iraq did not accomplish anything of what it was supposed to accomplish. In fact, it has had the opposite effect on the people of Iraq and its neighbors, making Iraq a battleground; a refuge, hiding place, and shelter to extremist groups, who are killing Iraqis and Americans; and a place were new weapons are being tested. Only God knows when it will end.
The war in Iraq has had devastating impact on the Iraqi churches and their ministries. Whereas they were protected and supported in the past, many Iraqi Church leaders ask what the meaning of freedom is if it is not safe to go outside of homes after 6:00 or 8:00 pm; and what is the democracy that the Americans are talking about if Iraqis can not practice it? They say they have understood democracy in theory for a long time, and they still only experience it as theory.
Recently, a bishop in Baghdad said to the press that the situation of the Christian community in Iraq is very critical and that they are very much afraid of tomorrow. This bishop added that the disappearance of the Christians in Iraq is becoming a reality. Many cannot find jobs and are struggling to find their daily bread. Almost 50% have left after selling their homes and businesses. The Bishop added that some are returning, or want to return, not because the situation has improved, but because they have been expelled from the countries to which they emigrated during these past few years.
Another Iraqi church leader has said that the American invasion of Iraq has led to the creation of extremist Muslim groups which, for the first time in Iraqi memory, have targeted the Christians directly, kidnapping then killing them, forcing them to announce their conversion to Islam, or coercing them to leave their homes cities and towns.
As for the affects of the war on the churches in Iraq’s neighboring countries and beyond—Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, those in the Gulf, and even in Egypt—they are being faced with the burden of responsibility to respond to a problem for which neither they nor their countries are responsible. The most significant challenge is the staggering number of Iraqi refugees on their door steps with few resources at their disposal. As one bishop in Beirut said, “What can we do? We already have enough of our own to help and serve in a bad economy.” Another in Jordan said, “We need the international communities to step in and help. We have no ability to help these thousands of refugees who are becoming more and more very needy every day of the year.” The churches in the neighboring countries are faced with great needs. One Church leader in Syria said, “We did not need a war in Iraq to complicate our presence and ministries.” These are serious issues which are facing our churches in the Middle East as a result of the Iraq war, led by the US.
The churches in Iraq and the Middle East raised their voices many times against the war in Iraq, and they do now, more than five years after the invasion. They have asked and continue to ask their sister churches for solidarity, support, and advocacy for the people of Iraq, and especially the Christians whose presence is diminishing to dangerously low levels. They are asking their partners the world over to speak and act against the war in Iraq and to bring it to an immediate end, so there will be peace in Iraq and the people of Iraq will be safe and secure once again.
The Rev. Dr. Nuhad Tomeh is one of the Middle East Council of Churches’ three Associate General Secretaries and Coordinator of the Iraq Relief Program.