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Iraqi Christians Struggle to Survive and Thrive 20 Years After ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’

- NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER - Edward Pentin - MAY 23, 2023 -

NEWS ANALYSIS: Signs of hope exist, but Christians continue to be concerned about inadequate security and few job opportunities

(photo: Zaid al-Obeidi / AFP via Getty Images)

A priest leads Divine Liturgy at the Church of Mar Tuma (St. Thomas) in Iraq's northern city of Mosul, on April 28, 2023. The 19th-century church, which was heavily damaged during fighting with the Islamic State group, was renovated thanks to donations from a French NGO, “Fraternité en Irak.”

ERBIL, Iraq — Twenty years on from the military invasion of Iraq, the country’s Christians continue to suffer from the fallout of the conflict and face persecution, marginalization and displacement while governments and the world’s media largely ignore their situation.

But precisely how did the Iraq War impact Christians, and what lessons can be learned from strategic errors that made the suffering and persecution worse for the ancient community whose presence dates back to the first century, but which has now been forced to the brink of extinction?


On March 20, 2003, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq with the aim of overthrowing President Saddam Hussein and his government, primarily and ostensibly to prevent him from obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) which threatened to destabilize the entire oil-rich region.

The George W. Bush administration and its “coalition of the willing” expected a swift military campaign, followed by the installation of a democratically elected government that would bring peace and stability to the country. But “Operation Iraqi Freedom” — waged illegally according to some international authorities and executed poorly in the eyes of other critics — became a protracted conflict that cost more than 200,000 civilian and military lives, 2 trillion US dollars, and displaced 9.2 million Iraqis.

Christians and other minorities became targets of Islamist groups, such as al-Qaida, that rapidly gained a foothold in the country. Their many attacks targeted Christians, such as five churches bombed in Baghdad and Mosul in 2004, as well as the murder of clergy including Chaldean Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho of Mosul in 2008 — the most senior Chaldean Catholic to be killed in the Iraq War — and Father Ragheed Ganni in 2007.

After the departure of U.S. forces in 2011, an even more barbaric terrorist group, Islamic State (ISIS), an offshoot of al-Qaida, emerged as a regional power. Having already brutally attacked Iraqi Christians in 2010, in 2014 it invaded the ancient, predominantly Christian-populated areas of Northern Iraq. At its peak, ISIS managed to capture 40% of the country, most notably Mosul, home to 24,000 Christians in 2003 but now to only 350.

President Barack Obama, who oversaw the withdrawal of US troops in 2011, ordered the forces back into Iraq in 2014 as part of “Operation Inherent Resolve” in a bid to restore security. But ISIS was not defeated completely until 2018, by which time many Iraqi Christians and other minorities had been violently killed or tortured, and many more had been dispossessed and displaced, or had fled the country altogether to seek refuge in the West.

The overall consequences of the 2003 invasion “brought death to many and has nearly destroyed Iraq, saw the emergence of ISIS, and set wars off in the Middle East that continue today,” said Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil in northern Iraq. “It also destroyed many lives, livelihoods and forced people off to the diaspora.”

In 2003, a total of 1.3 million Christians lived in Iraq and enjoyed protection and near-equal rights with Iraq’s Muslim majority under Saddam. Now that number has dwindled to fewer than 250,000. “I have not met one person both locally and internationally who has said the 2003 military invasion was a good decision,” Archbishop Warda told the Register. No one, except corruption, has benefited from the invasion.”

The impact of the war and its aftermath on Iraq’s Christians has led many to question whether their interests were ever seriously considered by the U.S.-led coalition. Pope St. John Paul II frequently warned, in vain, against the conflict and sent peace envoys to try to avert it, largely because he could foresee the devastating effect it would have on Christians there.

‘Massive, Massive Failure’

Christian and Yazidi minorities were either seen as “acceptable collateral damage in the long-term planning of the Iraq campaign” or they were “never accurately accounted at all,” said Stephen Rasche, an American who has served the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq since 2014 and was present throughout the recovery of Christian Iraq following the ISIS occupation.

“Either way this was a massive, massive failure in planning and intelligence by the Bush administration which raises very difficult moral questions — questions which have not come close to being answered by those most responsible,” Rasche told the Register. He added he was particularly disappointed by the absence when marking this anniversary of any “sincere apology or real remorse for the thousands of lives taken.”

Some commentators have traced the catastrophe inflicted on Iraqi Christians and other minorities, especially by ISIS, to at least one key decision made by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the caretaker government established in May 2003 and run by the U.S. Department of Defense: the formal disbandment of the Iraqi Army, otherwise known as CPA Order 2, on May 23, 2003 — exactly 20 years ago.

Rasche said he believes this order was “clearly a mistake” and a “major contributor to the violence which engulfed Iraq, not just from ISIS in 2014, but by other sectarian fighters from 2003 onward, which were very ugly times in many parts of Iraq.” Archbishop Warda agreed, believing the decision was a “tragedy for the country.”

The person ultimately responsible for implementing this order was Iraq’s de facto head of state at the time, Ambassador Paul Bremer, a seasoned U.S. diplomat whom President Bush appointed to run the CPA from 2003 to 2004.

Speaking to the Register May 10, Bremer defended his decision, saying that when he arrived in early May of 2003, nearly two months since the invasion, “there really was no army” as it had, in the Pentagon’s words, “self-demobilized.”


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