According to a recent report, since 2003, the population of Christians in Iraq has fallen from 1.4 million to just 275,000. The report concluded this was due to the lack of security, radicalization in the Middle East, and the rise of terrorist groups. Like many others before it, however, the report overlooked the impact of the American invasion on the persecution of Iraq Christians and their subsequent flight from the country.
President George W. Bush trafficked in rhetoric that made many Iraqis perceive the invasion as a religious war. The many missionaries who accompanied U.S forces, distributing food, clothing, and bibles to the population, exacerbated this sentiment. For many Iraqis, these missionaries were “eerily like a second invasion.” This proselyting by foreigners created problems for the country’s indigenous Christian population, as many Iraqis came to see their Christian neighbors as a fifth column, collaborating with the Americans.
These suspicions had a historical antecedent. During the mid-twentieth century, the British had enormous influence over Iraq’s army and elevated Christian brigades to a place of prominence. At the time, public opinion, common among many leading officials and promoted in newspapers, claimed that Assyrians, who are a Christian, ethnic group, were British proxies undermining Iraqi sovereignty.
Suspicions of Iraq’s Assyrian community increased after the Simele massacre of 1933. During this brutal episode, approximately 5000-6000 Assyrians in northern Iraq were murdered. Following the massacre, a number of British officials demanded that Iraq’s then-ruler, King Faysal, punish the culprits. For many Iraqis, this intervention was proof of Western collaboration with Iraq’s Christian community.
The U.S. led invasion of Iraq revived these historical prejudices. Because of their faith, many Iraqi Christians were closely associated, in the public consciousness, with the invaders. They were, as such, doubly affected by the invasion. Not only did they live under occupation, but they were also attacked by their fellow Iraqis.
The U.S. invasion made Iraqi Christians vulnerable, and set them up as scapegoats. Targeted as “traitors,” they received little sympathy from the wider Iraqi public.