The letter was addressed to Condoleezza Rice, the date was Sept. 11, 2007, and the writer was Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), then running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
While Iraq’s Christian minority had come under attack and faced grave hardships since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 – a spate of church bombings in Aug. 2004 killed at least 12 people – religious freedom advocates have tracked a particularly severe deterioration over the past five years – on President Obama’s watch.
On the Open Doors USA’s annual watch list of the world’s worst persecutors of Christians, Iraq did not make the top ten between 2003 and 2010, instead taking positions in the low 20s or high teens.
In 2011 (covering events of the previous year) Iraq entered the watch list’s top ten, making eighth place. In 2012 it was ninth, but by 2013 Iraq had climbed to fourth place, the same positions in holds in 2014.
The deadliest single recorded act of violence against Iraqi Christians since 2003 occurred on Oct. 31, 2010: 53 killed in an armed attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation church.
But the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS or ISIL) worsened the situation significantly this year. The al-Qaeda-inspired jihadist group seized control of Mosul in the historical Christian heartland of Ninawa (Ninevah) province on June 10, and last week ordered those Christians who had not yet fled to convert, pay the jizya tax – a humiliating Qur’an-mandated tribute levied on conquered non-Muslims – or be killed.
ISIS fighters have identified Christians’ properties in Mosul by tagging them with the Arabic letter N (for “Nasrani,” or Nazarene), according to the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Baghdad.
Christians who fled Mosul told the Associated Press they had to leave behind most of their possessions, and some reported being robbed by ISIS gunmen as they left.
“The last few days have been among the very worst in the long history of Iraq’s Christians,” Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of Barnabas Fund – an agency supporting minority Christians in Islamic countries – said on Wednesday.
“The impossible ultimatum from the merciless Islamists has forced those who had tried to stay in Mosul after it was taken over last month to flee,” he said. “And as if that was not bad enough, the militants took everything from them, leaving them destitute. They are in great need of our support and prayers at this distressing time.”
Iraq’s Christians include Chaldean Catholics, Assyrians, Orthodox Syriacs, Catholic and Orthodox Armenians, and Protestants. Many trace their origins to the ancient Assyrian empire.
‘Make protecting this ancient community a priority’
Despite the worsening situation Christians have faced in recent years, the Obama administration repeatedly has ignored recommendations by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent statutory body, for Iraq to be designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for religious freedom violations.
Iraq was originally blacklisted in mid-2002, but the Bush administration removed it in 2004, around the time the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred power to the interim Iraqi government.
The USCIRF first urged Iraq’s return to the CPC list in late 2008. The Bush administration’s last designation announcement, made in its closing days in January 2009, did not include Iraq, and neither has the Obama administration done so over the ensuing five years.
CPC designation empowers the administration to impose sanctions or take other measures designed to generate improved behavior from governments which either themselves violate citizens’ religious freedom, or allow others to do so.
Concerns raised by the USCIRF are not limited to Iraq’s Christians, but also to other vulnerable minorities such as the Yazidis, adherents of a religion that predates Islam and Christianity; and Mandaeans, a sect that reveres John the Baptist. Its annual reports also cite Sunni-Shi’ite tensions.
USCIRF chairperson Katrina Lantos Swett on Tuesday condemned ISIS’ ultimatum to Christians in Mosul, calling the group’s persecution of Christians, Yazidis, Shi’ites, and Sunnis who reject its ideology “deeply troubling and repugnant.”
“It is vital that the United States and other like-minded governments act to defend this fundamental freedom [of religion, conscience and belief] against the onslaught of those who seek to impose their dark vision of total religious repression on the peaceful Christian, Yazidi, and Muslim communities of Iraq and Syria,” she said in a statement.
In a speech on the House floor Tuesday, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said what was happening to Iraq’s Christians amounted to genocide, and urged the administration to “make protecting this ancient community a priority.”
In his letter to Rice in the fall of 2007, then-Sen. Obama said Iraq’s Christian, Yazidi and Mandaean communities “appear to be targeted by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militants.”
“The severe violations of religious freedom faced by members of these indigenous communities, and their potential extinction from their ancient homeland, is deeply alarming in light of our mission to bring freedom to the Iraqi people,” he wrote.
“In addition, such violence may be an indicator of greater sectarian violence. Such rising sectarian violence and the Iraqi internally displaced people and refugee crises potentially could serve as catalysts for wider regional instability,” Obama said. “These crises demand an urgent response from our government.”