"What are the Muslims doing?" asked Brother Louis, a deacon at Our Lady of Salvation, an Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad minutes after it had been bombed. "Does this mean that they want us [Christians] out?"
Well, yes, it does. Our Lady of Salvation was just one of five churches attacked in a series of coordinated explosions in Baghdad and Mosul on Aug. 1, a Sunday, between 6 and 7 p.m. In total, these car bombings killed 11 people and injured 55. In addition, the police defused another two bombs.
The timing of the assault guaranteed a maximum number of casualties. August 1 is a holy day for some Iraqi Christian denominations and because Sunday is an ordinary work day in mostly Muslim Iraq, Sunday services take place in the evening.
The five bombings were by no means the first attacks targeting Iraq's Christian minority since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Others (according to the Barnabas Fund, an organization assisting persecuted Christian minorities), were bunched together at the end of 2003 and included a missile attack on a convent in Mosul; bombs placed, but defused, in two Christian schools in Baghdad and Mosul; a bomb explosion at a Baghdad church on Christmas Eve; and a bomb placed, but defused, at a monastery in Mosul.
Also, Islamists have attacked the predominantly Christian owners of liquor, music, and fashion stores, as well as beauty salons, wanting them to close down their businesses. Christian women are threatened unless they cover their heads in the Islamic fashion. Random Christians have been assassinated.
These assaults have prompted Iraqi Christians, one of the oldest Christian bodies in the world, to leave their country in record numbers. An Iraqi deacon observed some months ago that "On a recent night the church had to spend more time on filling out baptismal forms needed for leaving the country than they did on the [worship] service. ... Our community is being decimated." Iraq's minister for displacement and migration, Pascale Icho Warda, estimates that 40,000 Christians left Iraq in the two weeks following the Aug. 1 bombings.
Whereas Christians make up just 3% of the country's population, their proportion of the refugee flow into Syria is estimated anywhere between 20% and 95%. Looking at the larger picture, one estimate finds that about 40% of the community has left since 1987, when the census found 1.4 million Iraqi Christians.
Although Muslim leaders uniformly condemned the attacks – Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani termed them "criminal actions," while the interim Iraqi government bravely declared that "This blow is going to unite Iraqis" – they almost certainly mark a milestone in the decline and possible disappearance of Iraqi Christianity.
This seems all the more likely because Christians, due mainly to Islamist persecution and lower birth rates, are disappearing from the Middle East as a whole.
- Bethlehem and Nazareth, the most identifiably Christian towns on earth, enjoyed a Christian majority for nearly two millennia, but no more. In Jerusalem, the decline has been particularly steep: in 1922, Christians slightly outnumbered Muslims and today they make up less than 2% of the city's population.
- In Turkey, Christians numbered 2 million in 1920 but now only a few thousand remain.
- In Syria, they represented about one-third of the population early last century; now they account for less than 10%.
- In Lebanon, they made up 55% of the population in 1932 and now under 30%.
- In Egypt, for the first time, Copts have been emigrating in significant numbers since the 1950s.
At present rates, the Middle East's 11 million Christians will in a decade or two have lost their cultural vitality and political significance.
In combination, these ethnic cleansings of two ancient religious minorities mark the end of an era. The multiplicity of Middle Eastern life, most memorably celebrated in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet (1957-60), is being reduced to the flat monotony of a single religion and a handful of approved languages. The entire region, not just the affected minorities, is impoverished by this narrowing.