11.06.10

Al Qaeda Turns to the Church

A bloodbath in a Christian sanctuary full of worshippers this week signaled a new shift in violence in Iraq. Eliza Griswold talks to an Iraqi who escaped persecution—but only after his father was killed.

Mazin al Saqa is a 35-year-old Iraqi Christian doctor living in the United States. Exactly where, he'd rather not say in order to protect his family still in Iraq. A few days ago, he learned that his cousin was taken hostage by an al-Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, during this week's attack on a Catholic Church in Baghdad called Our Lady of Salvation.

This latest massacre of Christians, which left 58 dead, is one of the bloodiest on record since the war began in 2003.  It also marks a shift in patterns of violence. It's nothing new for militants to destroy empty churches. But this bloodbath in a sanctuary full of worshippers is horribly new.

Upon hearing the news, Mazin was devastated, but not surprised. "This is what's happening to Christians in Iraq," he said by phone from his safe haven in the U.S. "What hurts most is that no one does anything to protect them."

According to the U.S. State Department, of the estimated 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, roughly 500,000 have fled their homes since the U.S. invasion.

"The persecution really began in 2005," Mazin said. His family was one of the first to be targeted. Living in the northern town of Mosul, Mazin's family has belonged to the local Presbyterian Church for at least six generations. The church was founded in 1840. His father, Elder Munthir al Saqa, was one of the town's most prominent Christian leaders.

In predominantly Muslim countries, religious minorities—from Christians to fellow Muslim groups—often serve as canaries in the coal mine for larger issues of tolerance.

On November 22, 2006, his father was kidnapped by Islamist militants. Right away, Mazin's phone rang. They wanted a $1 million in ransom—an impossible price. The kidnappers knew the family couldn't pay it. "They told me they wanted to kill him," Mazin said. And five or six days later, the militants shot his father and left his body in the street.

"He became a martyr," Mazin said. For many Christians, contemporary martyrdom isn't an Islamic phenomenon; it's a Christian one, too. Leading Christian demographers put their numbers of martyrs at 70 million to Islam's 80 million. And they place the majority of Christians killed in the 20th century. For Middle Eastern Christians, Mazin recalled his father saying, "You take faith by your own will and you die for it."

Like father, like son. A few days after his father's murder, Mazin's cell phone rang. "Your time has ended, Mazin," the voice said on the phone. "You have corrupted many Islamic minds, and your church must be closed."

The kidnappers showed up at his house, but Mazin was able to escape, first to Jordan; then, in February of 2009, to the United States, thanks to a joint program run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the intergovernmental organization, the International Office of Migration (IOM).

"They told me not to say I was fleeing religious persecution," he said. "Then, they'd have to give all Iraqi Christians asylum." Mazin was able to bring his mother, a 62-year-old widow, and his two unmarried sisters out of Iraq. But he had to leave others behind. To support them, he teaches anatomy and sociology at a local community college while he studies for his exams to be certified as a doctor in the U.S. There are six other Iraqi doctors he knows studying for the same certification exam. "They're all Christians and they all have stories just like mine," he said.

Religious persecution is one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time. And it doesn't just apply to Christians.

Other religious minorities, such as Ahmadiyya Muslims, are also facing increasingly violent attacks in their home countries of Pakistan and Indonesia. (On May 28, 2010, in the most violent massacre to date, more than 80 Ahmadiyya were killed in an attack in the Pakistani city of Lahore.) Most Muslims generally hold that the Islamic Messiah has yet to arrive on earth; the Ahmadiyya believe that this reformer already came in the person of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad.

In Pakistan, persecution is nothing new. The group was sentenced to death for apostasy decades ago. In Indonesia, which, with 240 million people, is the world's largest and most vibrant Muslim democracy, the Ahmadiyya have also been facing increasing persecution.

One California-based human-rights lawyer, Amjad M. Khan, who represents persecuted minorities like the Ahmadiyya and Egyptian Christians attempting to gain asylum in the United States, sees more and more cases each year.

"This isn't just a human-rights issue, this is a security concern," Khan says. He notes that in predominantly Muslim countries, religious minorities—from Christians to fellow Muslim groups—often serve as canaries in the coal mine for larger issues of tolerance.

To monitor such abuses, the United States passed the International Religious Freedom Act in 1998. The State Department formed an Office of Religious Freedom. Now, the U.S. generates an annual report that monitors violence against religious minorities in foreign countries, and lists countries of particular concern.

Critics of the International Religious Freedom Act, note, however, that the State Department doesn't monitor the United States, where violence against Muslims has faced a marked uptick in the past several years.

As for Mazin al Saqa and his family, now safely hidden in the United States, he says that many Americans still don't understand what Iraqi Christians are suffering. He meets many people who don't know that there have been Christians in Iraq for centuries.

Issues of persecution and religious freedom can be hard for Americans to understand, he said. "Religious freedom is a privilege and not every country has it."

This Monday, Iraqi Christians will be marching in American and European cities to draw attention to their plight and to the horror of this week's attack. The march is, above all, Mazin says, a bid to build some understanding of how dire religious persecution actually is.

"Have you lost your country? Have you lost your hometown?" Mazin asked. "I lost everything I couldn't carry—days, trees, even memories."

Eliza Griswold, a Senior fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Tenth Parallel.