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April 27, 2015

Rescuing Iraq’s Christians from Extinction


In his Harvard International Law Journal Commentary, “Saving an Ancient Community,” Jonathan A. Pride examines the latest danger to Iraq’s Christians, who in recent years have been pushed to the brink of extinction. Mr. Pride identifies three factors that threaten the very existence of Christianity in Iraq: (i) a Western “other” Christian identity; (ii) Islamic extremism; and (iii) a depressed economy that has taken an enormous toll on Iraq’s Christians.


After a brief introduction in Part I, Mr. Pride’s Commentary is divided into three sections. Part II, “Identity Construction,” examines the identity of Christians in Iraq, who are often labeled as the Western “Other” or as “agents” of the West, and whose rights are consequently restricted. Mr. Pride concludes that “[d]isproportionately small representation in government, a constitution that emphasizes the Muslim identity of Iraq instead of minority rights, and laws that can easily be used to implement anti-Christian policies leave Christians on the fringes of the governing process and the national character, thus increasing the likelihood of their treatment as an ‘other’ in Iraqi national life” (p. 201).

In Part III, “From Minority to Refugee,” Mr. Pride argues that in post-Saddam Iraq, “extremists from both the Sunni and Shia communities began to target Christian communities in efforts to enforce stricter forms of Islam … Christians began receiving threats to convert to Islam or leave [their communities], and Christian churches, individuals, and businesses suffered numerous attacks” (p. 201). However, “Christians did not start to truly flee from their homes until their priests and archbishops began to be kidnapped, killed, and sometimes mutilated or decapitated” (p. 201). By 2011, one-third to one-half of the Christian population of Iraq (over half a million Iraqi Christians) fled the country. Despite accounting for only five percent of the total population of Iraq, Christians accounted for “nearly half the refugees fleeing Iraq” (p. 202). Mr. Pride identifies the many factors, including the economic and security situation in Iraq, that hinder Christians from voluntarily repatriating to Iraq.

Mr. Pride argues in Part IV, “Ways Forward,” for a three-prong strategy for encouraging Christians to remain in or repatriate to Iraq. This strategy consists of the following three-point plan:

(a)   The Iraqi government should act to deconstruct the “other” identity of Christians. This can be achieved, for example, by enacting constitutional changes reflecting an emphasis on equal protection and granting minorities a meaningful voice in government, as well as using the post-ethnic conflict reintegration methods that were effective in the Balkans;

(b)    The Christian area in the Kurdistan Nineveh Plain should be given a “safe zone” status, allowing Christian villages to assemble local police forces and governing councils to ensure security; and

(c)    The international community must invest in and help rebuild Iraq’s economy to attract Christians back to Iraq, as “[t]argeted investment in the reconstruction of Christian villages and in general Iraqi industry would go a long way in keeping Iraq a viable option for Christians.” Mr. Pride recognizes that such aid to Christian villages could draw “the familiar trope of Christians as Western agents” and “Christian favoritism” (p. 211), but these accusations make it all the more imperative that the international community clearly communicate that international assistance is targeting the victims of devastating ethnic cleansing and, arguably, genocide (p. 211). International aid targeting Christians in Iraq ought to be no different than the international aid that targeted Muslims in the Balkans a decade earlier; such aid should be victim-based, not religiously driven.

Finally, in Part V, “Conclusion,” Mr. Pride closes by observing that while his proposals do not ensure success, “they create more suitable conditions for the survival of Christianity in Iraq” (p. 212).


Mr. Pride’s piece is particularly relevant to the developments that Iraq has witnessed over the last two years, with the self-styled Islamic State having gained control of significant swaths of territory in Iraq and subjecting Christians, Yazidis and other religious minorities to some of the most brutal forms of persecution that history has known, including burning people alive, beheadings, crucifixions and limb amputations, even of women and children.

In addition to Mr. Pride’s suggestions for combating the extinction of Christians in Iraq, there is a desperate need for peace-loving Muslims to engage sectarian Islamic armed groups from within the framework of Islamic law. Because these armed groups refuse to acknowledge the validity of non-Islamic international humanitarian law and the protections that it affords civilians, they should be challenged on the basis of the very Islamic laws that they claim to implement. This can be achieved by Islamic scholars and Imams, operating from within the framework of Islamic law, challenging armed groups’ interpretations of the sacred texts they use to justify attacks on Christians and other civilians, debating the apologists of jihād and highlighting the discrepancies between these armed groups’ acts and the acts strictly forbidden by Islamic law—looting, the mutilation of corpses and the murder of non-combatants in times of war, to name a few. Imams and other leaders of Muslim communities ought to emphasize and re-emphasize the Islamic proof texts that provide for the protection of women, children and other civilians, including the aḥadīth whereby the Prophet Muhammad expressly forbade the targeted killing of women and children, including the ḥadīth where he declared that it is “not permissible to kill women and children, even if the enemy uses them as human shields” (see Yusuf al-Qaraḍāwī, Fiqh al-Jihād, Volume I, Bab VI: The Islamic Army of Jihād, its duties and ethics and constitution, Faṣl 5: The Ethical Constitution during war in Islām).

Yet it is not enough that “establishment” Imams and clerics voice these views. For example, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia (Al-Asheikh) and other establishment religious leaders each day issue statements published in the Saudi Gazette and Arab News condemning extremism as contrary to Islam, yet extremists do not heed these calls as they view these establishment clerics as agents of the very regimes that they aim to abolish. Rather, it is the local clerics and leaders in remote and poor regions of society that can get through to Muslims who might otherwise succumb to the recruiting efforts of extremist armed groups.

Because challenging Islamic armed groups on the basis of international law often does not make headway, Islamic law itself may serve as an effective—albeit under-utilized—tool in engaging them. Such an approach may yield stronger results in increasing the respect for the protection of unarmed civilians, including Christians and other minorities, in times of armed conflict.

Mr. Pride’s Commentary is available at http://www.harvardilj.org/2012/04/online_53_pride, or as a downloadable PDF from http://www.harvardilj.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/HILJ-Online_53_Pride.pdf