NEW YORK – A group of Christian and Jewish leaders gathered in front of the Iraqi Mission to the United Nations in New York City Wednesday to appeal to Iraqi authorities about the escalating violence against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq.
Led by Dr. Paul de Vries, president of the New York Divinity School, the leaders spoke briefly with Ambassador Hamid Al-Bayati, permanent representative of Iraq to the United Nations, bringing the diplomat’s attention to the plight of Iraq's religious minorities, who have been facing escalating violence since the U.S. invasion of the country in 2003. The interfaith group sought to impress upon Al-Bayati the need for the government to protect its people, especially now that U.S. troops have left the country.
The Christian leaders emphasized that the Christmas season is a particularly dangerous time of the year for the Christian community, as terrorist organizations have targeted Christian holiday services in the Middle East in the past and have specifically recommended attacks on churches.
The U.S. invasion, which overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein, made the life of local Christians and other non-Muslim minorities worse, according to multiple sources. The nationalist dictator reportedly held sectarian violence at a distance, but since the American occupation began, many non-Muslim groups have been experiencing violent attacks, including the bombing of a Baghdad church in October 2010 that killed 58 congregants.
At least 54 Iraqi churches have been bombed and at least 905 Christians killed in various acts of violence since 2003, The Wall Street Journal reported recently. Many Christians were forced to leave the country; according to a recent study by Minority Rights Group International; as many as 900,000 might have fled since 2003. Some fear that the Christian population – which includes not only converts from Islam, but the indigenous population of Assyrian Christians – might end up being completely wiped out of Iraq.
“One of the greatest tragedies of our recent war in Iraq has been the loss of secular government protection for religious minorities in Iraq, including the remaining more than half a million Assyrian Christians,” Dr. Ron Sider, founder and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, said in a statement. “They are the direct descendants of some of the earliest Christians, who then brought the Gospel to many other nations. Let us pray earnestly for their protection-and urge our State Department, international organizations and media to monitor their safety quite deliberately.”
“If we stay silent, then it’s very similar to staying complicit to what’s happening to our brothers and sisters [in Iraq],” said New York Chaplain Viviana Hernandez, who attended the event.
The Iraqi ambassador could not receive the group in his office, due to prior arrangements, he said. De Vries said he would try to get the group an official hearing with the ambassador in the near future, to bring even more attention to Dec. 25 being particularly dangerous for Christian minorities in the region.
Although they could not officially meet with Al-Bayati, the group of religions leaders agreed that they were successful in at least raising the Iraqi official's awareness of the issue.
“We feel it’s really important to stand up for all people where there is limitation of their ability to have their freedom of expression of their religion,” said Howard B. Teich, a New York Board of Rabbis adviser. “We are out here tonight because we want to make a statement that the government of Iraq and the Kurdish government need to make sure that these people have the freedom to live there and for their religious belief to flourish.”
These Christian and non-Muslim communities have been deeply hurt, physically and otherwise, Teich told CP.
“As we celebrate our holiday of Hanukkah, we’re thinking about our own securing of religious freedom in days old, over 2,000 years ago, and it’s an opportunity for us to reflect on the situation of Christians in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq, as they suffer persecution and the denial of their religious freedom,” said Rabbi Yaakov Kermaier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, adding that he, along with rabbis across New York, has been praying that Iraqi religious minorities can “be able to worship their God without any fear of persecution.”
“It’s absolutely wonderful that the Jewish and Christian community has come together for this, because it’s near and dear to both hearts that those who are being persecuted – those who are being massacred because of their religious beliefs -- that someone would stand up for them,” Joseph A. Ruta, Esq., president of New York Christian Legal Society, told CP. Every day more people in Iraq are being persecuted and this will continue until the U.S. government puts more pressure on the issue as well, he added.
Also in attendance were Ryan Mauro, representing Eagles Wings Ministry and Gwendolen Cates, a Christian documentarian working on a feature film about Iraq' religious minorities.
“The stories of what the Iraqi Christians go through should make it impossible for us to remain silent. All Christians are obligated to pray for their safety and to ask their church leaders to include a prayer for them during the holiday services,” Robert Stearns, founder and executive director of Eagles Wings Ministry, based in Buffalo, N.Y., said in a statement.
Matthew Cortina contributed to this article.