NEW YORK -- As the Christian community expresses its concern over reports of a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq, an Iraqi official says the situation is not as bad as it seems, and that Iraq, with a tradition of religious tolerance, very much has a chance to become an oasis of peace and tolerance in the region – but that would require the eradication of extremism.
The Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations, Dr. T. Hamid Al-Bayati, met with a group of local interfaith religious leaders in the Permanent Mission of Iraq to the U.N. in New York City Thursday to discuss what the international Christian community can do to support the Iraqi government in protecting the vulnerable religious minorities. The ambassador addressed several Jewish and Christian religious leaders who have expressed concern about the international Christian community not engaging enough in helping their brethren. They have also expressed concern as to whether the Iraqi government was doing everything in its power to protect religious minorities. Among those present at Thursday's meeting were Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier, President of the New York Board of Rabbis and Dr. Paul de Vries, president of the New York Divinity School, along with several others.
News organizations as well as external research companies, and even the U.S. government have been reporting a rise in persecution of religious minority in the country – the aftermath of chaos and a rise in sectarian violence that followed the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"Since 2004, there has been a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq, reducing its Christian community by more than half," reads the 2011 report of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a governmental agency. "Significant declines also have occurred among smaller religious minorities, such as the Yazidis and also the Mandaeans, who have lost more than 80 percent of their members, mostly through emigration."
According to a recent study by Minority Rights Group International, only 500,000 Christians currently remain in Iraq, as compared to between 800,000 and 1.4 million in 2003.
But the issue is complicated, Al-Bayati said, as many people leaving Iraq are doing so not only because of a threat to their security, but also in search of better economic opportunities.
Iraq – where 97 percent of the country is Muslim – was devastated by the war, and now needs to focus on boosting its economy, while simultaneously trying to provide the necessary security measures amid the presence of violent extremists, who still infiltrate the country, the ambassador suggested.
Many have died as result of the violence in recent years, not only as result of religious persecution, the ambassador pointed out (although the 2010 attack on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad was a "horrific" event, he admitted). Some 110,000 Iraqi civilians might have died since the U.S. invasion, according to some estimates. The violent minority of Muslim extremists is giving the entire country a bad reputation, Al-Bayati said.
Given the number of extremists still present in Iraq, observers have also expressed concern about the safety of the already tormented religious minorities, especially in light of the U.S. troop withdrawal.
But the ambassador expressed confidence that the Iraqi government needs no more external military help to deal with the issue of violence.
"The situation can be handled by the Iraqi forces. As I said, we need to rebuild our capability, but hopefully we will be able to maintain security in Iraq," he told The Christian Post. "Since 2003 until the end of 2011, we had foreign military presence. Now we have no foreign military presence. However, we need help and support with foreign investments."
"The Iraqi government is aware that the Christian community is a very important component of the Iraqi people," AL-Bayati said. "They realize that without Christians in Iraq, Iraq wouldn't be able to live a normal life. And they try to protect them."
Indeed, during Chrsitmas, one year after the bloody church siege in Baghdad, security was hightened to an unusual level, accroding to local reports.
The message of the concerned religious leaders will be conveyed to Baghdad, the ambassador said.
Iraq – often associated with Muslim extremism and dominated by Sunnis and Shites, actually has a tradition of religious tolerance, in which Muslims, Jews and Christians would live side by side, Al-Bayati said, speaking of a time when people would identify themselves first as Iraqis, and then their religious affiliation.
"When I was going to school, we would never ask each other: what is your religion? Never," the ambassador said Thursday. "God created you to love each other, to tolerate each other, to understand each other. Hatred is forbidden. Hurting others is forbidden. Killing others is the biggest sin."
The rise of Saddam Hussein complicated matters, as the dictator was pushing ethnic and religious groups against each other in an effort to "divide and rule," the ambassador said. After Hussein's ousting and the U.S. invasion, a political vacuum made the rise of Muslim militias and al-Qaida infiltration possible. But the situation is slowly getting under control, Al-Bayati assured CP.
Now, the U.N. ambassador said, the Iraqi government needs to work on destroying the stereotype of Iraq as a hub for violent extremism.
"I don't think any Iraqi, normal Iraqi, feels an urge to go to a church and kill people when they are worshiping," the diplomat said. "Because at the end of the day, whether you go to a mosque, or a church or a synagogue, we are worshipping the same God."
The extremists know that targeting Christians will create a strong reaction in the West, the ambassador added. "They try to move the media, to show that Iraq is not a safe country for Christians. This is not right," he insisted.
So far, Syria has been unofficially considered more of a haven in the region, although the state was shaken after the violence between the regime and pro-democracy protesters. The country is host to the largest number of Christians in the region – many of them having come from Iraq.
"I think that all of us suffer from stereotypes when they are unfair," Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier said Thursday. "At the same time all of us, as proud Americans, pray that Iraq becomes a beacon of light not just for its own people but the entire Middle East, by showing it the example of pluralism and democracy in action in a Muslim country."
"One of the things that we hope, and that we pray for – and we're focusing on the Christian community as an example – is that by giving extra attention to the safety and freedom and welfare of this minority community, that it will provide Iraq with an additional platform to be that beacon of light. Because there is the stereotype that Christians can't function with freedom of faith and commitment in Muslim environments. Unfair or not, stereotypes pervade and I think Iraq has a really wonderful opportunity," he added.
"Because of his (Al-Bayati's) desire for encouragement and shared vision, including for efforts in Mid-Eastern peace, Evangelical and Jewish leaders will fruitfully follow-up with future meetings. Such future meetings can strengthen the good resolve of the present Iraqi leaders including the ambassador – and can also further inform our prayers for Iraq and for our Iraqi Christian brothers and sisters," Dr. Paul de Vries said.
The religious leaders made it clear during their meeting that dialogue between the Iraqi government and the international community is pivotal, as Iraq makes its attempt to rise above the violence.