One of the saddest unintended consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been the progressive de-Christianization of the country, home to churches that trace their lineage to the earliest days of the religion. In reporting on Christmas Day bombings in Christian areas of Baghdad, the New York Times noted that there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 but that the number is now half that.
The attrition of the Christian population may not have been foreseen by President George W. Bush (who, ironically, was suspected by some Muslims of plotting a literal “crusade” in the region), but it may well have been on the mind of Pope John Paul II. That pope, it will be remembered, was notably unenthusiastic about the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein. Like other Arab dictators -- the Assads in Syria, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt -- Hussein provided a measure of protection and legitimacy for Christians. (When I visited Egypt in the 1990s, I was struck by how many churches featured a portrait of Mubarak.)
It’s no accident that Pope Francis urged prayers for peace when it looked as if the U.S. might attack Syria to punish the Bashar Assad regime for allegedly using chemical weapons. No doubt the pope was appalled by the possibility of the loss of life that might attend such an operation, but he probably also was told by the Vatican diplomatic corps that life for Christians in a post-Assad Syria might be a nightmare of discrimination and displacement.
Not all Christians in the Middle East support dictatorial regimes. Some Coptic Christians joined Muslims and secularists in opposing Mubarak and calling for democracy. But in general, Christians have seen authoritarian and quasi-secular leaders such as Hussein and Assad as preferable to a more democratic polity in which political Islam would hold sway and Christians would be further marginalized, or worse.
Who’s to say they are wrong?
It’s ironic that many Americans who complain about a “war on Christians” in the Middle East supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq and also agitate for U.S. military action to depose Assad.
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