Photographs taken in early 2012 by Andy Spyra. Text essay by Sinan Antoon.
The plight of Christians in the Arab world attracts disproportionate attention in the “West” mostly to score political and “civilizational” points. Nevertheless, it is a serious problem that deserves genuine concern. An understanding of the genealogy and complexity of this plight is best sought beyond Islamophobia and other similarly reductive perspectives. Instead of narratives that imagine and situate the origins of consistent oppression in the distant past, a more careful look at the last few decades is far more productive. Iraq is a prime example. Until a few decades ago, its non-Assyrian Christians had never felt threatened qua Christians, and their rights to worship and practice their religion were never questioned. Larger numbers of Christians started to leave Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War and the genocidal economic embargo imposed by the UN/US, but so did hundreds of thousands of non-Christian Iraqis. The so-called “faith campaign” initiated by the Saddam Hussein regime in the late 1990s affected many Christians who owned alcohol-selling establishments.
The dismantling of the Iraqi state after the 2003 Anglo-American invasion and the institutionalization of a sectarian political system backed by a militia culture rendered minorities with no parties or militias, such as Christians and Sabi’a, severely vulnerable and subject to targeted acts of violence. The deterioration of safety and security and the outbreak of civil war and massive violence that followed compounded that vulnerability. Not unlike mosques, churches too were attacked and priests and nuns, as well as lay people, were kidnapped and murdered. Many Christians fled to neighboring countries or to Iraqi Kurdistan seeking refuge from the violence. Iraq’s third largest city, Mosul, and its environs where significant numbers of Christians live, have witnessed some of the worst sectarian violence. More than twenty thousand of Baghdad’s and Mosul’s Christians have fled to Qaraqosh, a town thirty-two kilometers south west of Mosul, to escape the violence.