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11.13.10

Hillary's Troubling Silence

Iraq’s 2,000-year-old Christian community is on the brink of extinction, its members targeted by al Qaeda attacks and fleeing abroad. But Hillary Clinton, the one person who could force the Iraq government to act, is keeping her mouth shut.

A full-scale genocide is under way in Iraq: a well-planned, well-financed, deliberate plot to cleanse the country of its Christian citizens. And thus far, neither the Iraqi government nor the United States is doing anything to stop it.

On Wednesday, al Qaeda militants launch a synchronized bombing attack on 11 Christian communities throughout Iraq, killing six and wounding more than 30. That attack followed on the heels of the ghastly assault last month on Christian worshippers attending a service at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were brutally murdered and another 60 wounded.

After that attack, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a statement condemning the violence: “Those with deviant thoughts from al Qaeda and their allies belonging to the followers of the ousted regime targeted our Christian brothers in a terrorist crime that aims at undermining security and stability, inciting strife and chaos and sending Iraqis away from their home.”

Yet beyond these empty words, the Iraqi government has done absolutely nothing to protect the besieged Christian community from further attack, despite a promise from al Qaeda in Iraq that “all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for Mujahedeen wherever they can reach them.” Indeed, just a couple of days after Maliki’s speech, three more bombs aimed at Christians went off in western Baghdad.

Americans of all faiths must band together and pressure the State Department to do something about the wanton murder of Iraqi Christians before there are no more Christians in Iraq to protect.

Christians are a small but historic part of the religious fabric of Iraq. Although they make up only about 1 percent of the population, Christians have been in this part of the world for 2,000 years, as evidenced by the stunningly beautiful churches and ancient monasteries that dot the Iraqi landscape. The town of Mosul is mentioned in the Bible, where it is known as Nineveh. And, to this day, some Iraqi Christians continue to speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

But now this historic community is on the brink of extinction. Since the American invasion in 2002, more than half of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country. The Christian community, like everyone else in Iraq, was caught up in the ethnic war that erupted in 2004 between the Shiites and Sunnis, and they have frequently been targeted both by Iraqi militants and by the mostly foreign fighters who constitute al Qaeda in Iraq. But Iraq’s Christians have not experienced anything like the deliberate targeting of their community over this past year. Hundreds of Christians have been murdered in 2010 and thousands more have left the country, fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

Despite this unprecedented bloodshed, little effort has been made by the Iraqi or U.S. governments to secure the livelihoods of Iraq’s Christians. “I blame the government for all these attacks. It’s a very weak government and it can’t protect us,” Zeya Moshi, an Iraqi Christian, told the Christian Science Monitor. After meeting with Maliki, the Syrian Archbishop Matti Shaba Matoka sounded less than confident in the government’s ability to protect his congregation. “The security authorities promised to protect us, but we don’t know what kind of procedures they’ve put in place,” he told the Christian Science Monitor.

The silence of the Iraqi government has led to calls from the U.K.-based Syriac Archbishop Athanasios Dawood for Iraq’s Christian community to flee the country. “The Christian people should leave their beloved land of our ancestors and escape the premeditated ethnic cleansing,” he said in a statement to CNN. “This is better than having them killed one by one.” Many Christians have already left Iraq; almost 150 were recently granted asylum by the French government. Those who cannot afford to do so have found some measure of refuge in the Kurdish north.

Maliki has not taken kindly to the offers of international organizations and foreign governments to take in Iraq’s beleaguered Christian community. “The countries that have welcomed the victims... of this attack have done a noble thing,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse. “But that should not encourage emigration.”

The prime minister is right. Emigration is not the answer. Christians were residing in Mesopotamia more than 500 years before Muslims arrived in the region. This sacred land belongs as much to them as to anyone else, and it would be a tragedy if it were stripped of its Christian presence. But without a concerted effort to protect the Christian population, the Iraqi government will be complicit in what is fast becoming a catastrophic act of ethnic cleansing.

Now that a new government has finally formed, it is time for Maliki to switch his focus from trying to remain prime minister to fulfilling his duty as head of state to protect the most vulnerable among his population. But let’s be honest—without enormous pressure from his backers in the U.S., Maliki has little incentive to turn his attention to this problem. And yet the U.S. and the international community thus far have barely managed to muster the most muted response to anti-Christian violence in Iraq. This week the United Nations Security Council and the United States released a bland and utterly ineffectual statement condemning the attacks on Iraq’s Christians “in the strongest terms,” while at the same time reaffirming its support “for the people and government of Iraq.”

That is not nearly enough to get the attention of the Iraqi government. What is needed is a firm condemnation by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacting specifically to al Qaeda’s explicit plans to rid Iraq of its Christian communities and warning the Iraqi government that there will be dire consequences to its continuing inaction on this urgent matter. A number of online petitions have sprung up on the Internet urging Clinton to do just that, but so far there has been no official statement by the U.S. government.

This silence cannot stand. Americans of all faiths must band together and pressure the State Department to do something about the wanton murder of Iraqi Christians before it’s too late and there are no more Christians in Iraq to protect. What is happening in Iraq is genocide, plain and simple. It must be stopped now.

Reza Aslan is author of the international bestseller No god but God and Beyond Fundamentalism. His new book is Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.