Christianity in Afghanistan and Iraq could be eradicated in our lifetime, partially as a result of the U.S. troop withdrawal, says Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a bi-partisan governmental agency fighting for religious freedom of peoples across the globe. Egyptian Christians, he adds, are possibly facing a similar fate.
This is the pattern throughout the Middle Eastern region, Leo said in a video interview with Terry Jeffrey, editor in chief of CNSNews on Dec. 22.
“The flight of Christians out of the region is unprecedented and it’s increasing year by year,” Leo said, concluding with a grim prediction that Christians might disappear altogether from Iraq, Afghanistan and Egypt.
Since the war began in March 2003, Iraq erupted into sectarian violence, leaving U.S. troops in charge of trying to contain what threatened to become a civil war. The situation turned out to be catastrophic for the Christian community there, as violence against Christians soared, including an attack on a church in Baghdad in Oct. 2010, in which 58 congregants were killed. Up to 900,000 Christians have fled the country since, according to a recent study by Minority Rights Group International.
The religious freedom expert echoed many others in accusing the Iraqi government of failing to take adequate steps to protect Christians or prosecute those who attack them.
“One of the big problems from the very beginning was that our country and others were unwilling to acknowledge that the fight in Iraq was largely a sectarian conflict and there wasn’t enough emphasis placed on the flight of Christians and other religious minorities, particularly in the northern part of Iraq,” Leo told CNSNews.com.
He added that religious minorities have always been an important part of the Iraqi fabric of society, which held it together. Disappearance of these minorities would be a “serious problem.”
U.S. Troops withdrew from Iraq on Dec. 15, and the final withdrawal from Afghanistan is due by the end of December.
“I’m very, very concerned about what will happen after our presence is completely gone, and I don’t know how we continue to put pressure on the Iraqi government and on the security forces and others in Iraq to protect the Christians in the absence of any presence,” Leo said in the interview.
The agency’s annual report on religious freedom in Iraq reports "systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations." At least half of the Iraqi Christian community from before the U.S. invasion is believed to have left the country, according to the report.
“In 2003, there were thought to be 800,000 to 1.4 million Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East members, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), Protestants, and Evangelicals in Iraq. Today, community leaders estimate the number of Christians to be around 500,000,” the report reads.
In Afghanistan “conditions for religious freedom remain problematic, despite gains in freedom of religion or belief since the ouster of the Taliban regime in late 2001,” says the USCIRF report.
A constitution that was drafted with the help of the United States government has effectively given the Afghan government license to deny religious liberty to people who adhere to minority faiths, including Christianity, Leo added in the interview.
“The constitution drafting process with which we were involved was a disaster and I’m not sure Afghanistan can ever fully recover from the damage that we inflicted by not holding the line on the kind of constitution drafting that we should have been pushing for,” he said.
In Egypt, according to Leo, anti-Christian violence and discrimination may inspire a mass migration of that nation’s Coptic Christian population, which means radical Muslims there will reach their goal. The country is headed down a similar path as Iraq and Afghanistan, Leo concluded.
“With what’s going on in Egypt, with the uncertainties that exist, there’s very little incentive for a young Coptic Christian to stay in the county,” Leo told CNSNews. “It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you saw the same basic trajectory in Egypt that you see in quite a number of other countries which is to say they just get up and they leave.”
Even under Mubarak, authorities were not investigating and bringing to justice the persecutors of minorities properly, he added. “But then you have to compound that problem with you may actually have a government that steps up the official repression of religion,” the religious freedom expert said.
He fears the new laws in Egypt may further restrict churches, which as a result could scare away the younger members of the Coptic community.
Other countries covered by USCIRF’s report, where the non-Muslim religious minority communities are facing existential threats include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan among others.
USCIRF, as a governmental agency, makes recommendations to the president, Congress and the secretary of state regarding how to use U.S. foreign policy to help freedom of religion across the world. The agency is able to suggest countries that violate that freedom to be considered “countries of particular concern” by the Dept. of State, Leo said. The agency reportedly asked the Department of State to name Egypt, Iraq and Afghanistan as such, but the department refused.
View the entire video interview HERE