On a Christmas Day in Baghdad while Saddam Hussein was in power, I watched something that Iraqis may never see again. Worshipers dressed in their holiday best converged on Our Lady of Assumption Church from around the neighborhood. They sang hymns before a glittering altar. A priest read Bible verses telling the story of Christ’s birth. Afterward, exuberant young members of the choir burst spontaneously into an Arabic-language version of “Jingle Bells.”
That scene — Christians worshiping peacefully in Baghdad without protection or fear of attack — would be unimaginable today. Extremist militias in Iraq have waged relentless war against Christians. Many have either been killed or forced to flee. The same has happened in neighboring Syria.
Secular dictators in the Middle East traditionally tolerated Christians and members of other religious minorities, seeing them as bulwarks against radical Islam. As their hold weakened, fanatical sects emerged and decreed death to apostates, including Christians. The success of their campaign has been breathtaking. Christianity is disappearing from the region where it was born. In lands where the Apostles once prayed and preached, Christians now fear to tread.
The 21st century has been a period of immense pain for Christians in the Middle East. Extinction of their way of life is also an immeasurable cultural loss to humanity. This cataclysm, like everything else that happens in our world, has causes. It was not inevitable, and did not simply “happen.” Above all, it is the product of political decisions made in Washington. The ironies might be dismissed as maddeningly absurd if they did not crystallize so much global upheaval and human suffering.
First is the irony of a nation that sees itself as a defender of Christian values, yet recklessly sets off a chain of events that leads to devastation for some of the world’s oldest Christian communities. The worshipers with whom I sat in Baghdad 21 years ago felt safe because they knew Hussein’s government would protect them. His deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, was a Chaldean Catholic. No Christian is likely to hold such a high position in Iraq again.
Death and emigration have reduced Iraq’s Christian population by more than 80 percent since the United States invaded in 2003 and overthrew Hussein — from 1.5 million to just 250,000. Christians who remain must live with a fear that is punctuated by bloody attacks. This is among the many consequences of our invasion of Iraq that we should have been able to foresee. By overthrowing Hussein, we hastened the end of Christianity in a land to which Saint John is said to have brought it soon after the Crucifixion.
Behind that irony lurks a deeper one. The president who launched the Iraq invasion, George W. Bush, liked to proclaim himself a devout Christian. He said he had been “born again” into a life dedicated to serving Jesus. Evangelical believers were among his most fervent supporters. Yet this sanctimonious president and his fellow Bible-thumpers gleefully waged a war that ended up exposing Iraqi Christians to the bloodiest persecution they have suffered in twenty centuries.
American intervention in Syria has been almost as devastating to Christians as our invasion of Iraq. As soon as it became clear that President Bashar Assad was not going to obey President Obama’s 2011 dictate that he “step aside,” the United States began sponsoring militant groups dedicated to overthrowing him. Since Assad was a secularist, it made sense that many fighters in those groups were foreign jihadists drawn to Syria by the chance to wage holy war. We branded them “moderate rebels” even as they openly proclaimed their desire to wipe Christianity out of Syria.
When these fanatics seized territory in Syria, Christians were among their victims. Terror had its effect. Two million Christians lived in Syria before the American-backed attack began in 2011. Since then, two-thirds have fled the country. Many of those who remain have sought safety under Assad’s protection in Damascus, where they live and worship freely. It is another irony: Syrian Christians fled for their lives as they were attacked by US-sponsored militants, and found refuge in areas controlled by the government we are seeking to overthrow.
The evangelical political machine that helps maintain President Trump’s power has great lobbying clout in Washington. Its leading figures proclaim solidarity with Christians in the Middle East. Yet they do not protest American policies of bombing, occupation, and sanctioning that make it impossible for Syria to stabilize under a regime that protects Christians.
Nor have many of Trump’s evangelical supporters opened their hearts to Christian refugees. In 2018, as thousands of Christians fled terrorist onslaughts, the United States accepted a grand total of 23 from Iraq and 20 from Syria. That is the ultimate irony. After making it all but impossible for Christians to live in lands that their community has called home for 2,000 years, we refuse to offer them shelter from the conflagration we helped ignite. Neither the extinction of an ancient faith in the region where it was born, nor the plight of those who embrace that faith, seems to concern our ostentatiously Christian leaders. It is a sobering Nativity message from a country that likes to imagine itself guided by the Prince of Peace.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.