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Missing: A Million Iraqi Christians

CBS’ 60 Minutes had a shocking story last night on the almost total obliteration of the Christian community in Iraq, all of it happening under the US occupation. And no one seemed more shocked than the CBS reporter, Scott Pelley, who apparently did not know that a brutally thorough sectarian cleansing has been going on under our watch. And the worst of it apparently happened in the last six months.

Christians have been in the area now known as Iraq for almost two thousand years, and by 2000, their numbers had grown to over 1 million. Part of the reason for that, it seems, is that Saddam Hussein’s regime, as brutal and murderous as it was towards those who challenged his rule, remained somewhat tolerant of Christians in a land otherwise dominated by different Islamic sects. There were hundreds of Christian churches in and around Baghdad, and they operated in the open.

The US occupation and overthrow of Saddam changed that. Extremist Sunni and Shia militia began their sectarian cleansing, and it seems the only thing they agreed on was that neither wanted the Christians in their religiously segregated neighborhoods. Christians were intimidated, threatened, kidnapped and forced to leave or be killed. According to 60 Minutes, the few Christians remaining in Iraq live in fear and worship only in secret underground places, unable to attend their now bombed or boarded-up churches. Most Iraqi Christians are either dead, refugees in other countries, or in hiding.

Pelley followed the last remaining Anglican chaplain, Reverend Canon Andrew White to a secret undergound service:

"The room is full of children, it’s full of women, but I don’t see the men. Where are they?" Pelley remarked.

"They are mainly killed. Some are kidnapped. Some are killed. In the last six months things have got particularly bad for the Christians. Here in this church, all of my leadership were originally taken and killed," White explained. "All dead. But we never got their bodies back. This is one of the problems. I regularly do funerals here but it’s not easy to get the bodies."

Pelley seemed shocked and genuinely surprised when the Reverend told him how bad things have been recently:

"You were here during Saddam’s reign. And now after. Which was better? Which was worse?" Pelley asked.

"The situation now is clearly worse” than under Saddam, White replied.

"There’s no comparison between Iraq now and then," he told Pelley. "Things are the most difficult they have ever been for Christians. Probably ever in history. They’ve never known it like now."

60 Minutes also helped CBS’ viewers make the connection between sectarian cleansing and the lower levels of reported violence since last year. While overall violence is down in neighborhoods like Dora, which used to have over a dozen operating Christian churches, that is because the "cleansing" is complete. Everyone the militias wanted out is dead, fled as displaced persons/refugees, or in hiding.

A woman Pelley interviewed explained how her small sons would be kidnapped and disappear if they went out. Another man shows pictures of his children, all shot. A US Colonel explains that the remaining Christians don’t want overt US protection because they would quickly become targeted as collaborators. Pelley reads a letter one family received, threatening everyone with death. He follows story after story, all the same. C&L has more.

All of the major Republican presidential candidates, echoing the White House, assure us the surge is working, that things are much better in Iraq. They say we’re winning, that Iraq is a generational ideological battlefield.

These men believe invading a Muslim country that posed no threat to America was a good idea, but not one of them has explained to their predominantly Christian base that the policies they embraced not only killed or displaced milliions of Muslims but also opened a pandora’s box that obliterated a million member Christian community. Someone should ask them about that.

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John has been writing for Firedoglake since 2006 or so, on whatever interests him. He has a law degree, worked as legal counsel and energy policy adviser for a state energy agency for 20 years and then as a consultant on electricity systems and markets. He's now retired, living in Massachusetts.

You can follow John on twitter: @JohnChandley