A procession outside Our Lady of Salvation church, scene of a bombing atrocity in Baghdad (Photo: AP)
Where do Christians go if life becomes intolerable in the Middle East? Ed West in his Daily Telegraph blog writes that Iraqi Jews were fortunate to have Israel to give them sanctuary when they needed it, but countries like Britain still refuse to give Christians special treatment. (With thanks: Lily)
Today there are six Christian denominations (not including tiny numbers of Protestants), the largest of which is the Chaldean Catholic Church, which came into communion with Rome in the 16th century, followed in size by two Assyrian Orthodox churches. Assyrians speak neo-Aramaic (a modern form of Syriac) and identify as a distinct Semitic ethnic group; and although the term Chaldo-Assyrian is often used to emphasise the unity of Iraqi Christians, some Chaldeans identify simply as Christian Arabs. Others, especially those who hail from southern Turkey, call themselves Syriacs or Arameans and doubt the validity of the term “Assyrian”, which only dates as a modern ethnic term to the 19th century, but nonetheless consider themselves to be one people.
Another Aramaic dialect even closer to that spoken by Christ is still spoken in Syria: Maaloula, a beautiful hillside town 40 miles north of Damascus, is the last surviving stronghold. For now.
Iraqi Christians living in the West all say the same thing – that they have no future in their homeland. Britain, in particular, does nothing to encourage their arrival, fearful that it would set off an exodus, and paralysed by a vague politically correct idea that we should not favour Christians over Muslims. But the difference is that Muslims in Iraq, Sunni, Shia or Kurd, have safe areas to go – Christians, and other minorities, have nowhere to go.
Another option favoured by many Assyrians is the creation of a 19th province in the Nineveh Plains, within a small area where Christians and other minorities consist a majority. Chaldeans tend to be more critical, feeling it would become a magnet for terrorism that could only be defended with a permanent Western military presence. The option favoured by Britain is to encourage them to stay in a multi-ethnic Iraq, despite their protests.
Why is this our responsibility? If you don’t believe in the concept of national honour, then it isn’t, but historically the Assyrians were strong allies of the British and that has often cost them. The Assyrian Levies fought with the British in two world wars, and in one interwar Iraqi uprising, against pro-German Arab forces. Iraqis in Britain do not understand why we give refugee to Abu Qatada but leave friends and allies in the lurch.
Sweden, in contrast, does recognise that Iraqi minorities have special needs; their Migration Board states that in the case of Iraqis “the fact that the person belongs to a vulnerable minority group should be taken into consideration”.
And legally it is not impossible to give preference. Article 1 of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees defines a refugee as “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.
Although refugee conventions were created to help people (mainly Germans) who had been ethnically cleansed following the Second World War, much of the moral impetus came from the shame the world felt about the 1938 Evian Conference, when the nations of the world left the Jews to their fate. Without a homeland, they were defenceless.
When, ten years later, the Iraqi regime turned against its Jews an ancient community, 2,500 years old, was tragically destroyed in just three years, but at least Iraqi Jews had a country that would offer them safety. Where do Middle Eastern Christians go if life becomes intolerable?