It was the second week in January of 1991. I was in the sanctuary of a large Catholic Church in Baghdad. Every votive candle in the place was lit, no doubt in support of prayers for loved ones in anticipation of the massive US bombing campaign, which was to be known as "Operation Desert Storm," that was soon to commence.
A member of our group asked the priest whose side the church would be on in the forthcoming conflict. He replied that "the Church can only be on one side: that of the victims."
Little did he realize that, less than twenty years later, Iraq's Christians would become among the greatest victims.
At that time, there were nearly 1 million Christians in Iraq. While anyone who openly challenged Saddam Hussein's government would be subjected to repression, within that decidedly secular regime, there was no fear of being persecuted as Christians. Indeed, Christians played prominent roles in Saddam's government, including those of foreign minister and vice-president.
As a result of the US-led invasion that toppled that secular government and brought to power a coalition led by Shiite Muslim fundamentalist parties and created a backlash by Sunni Muslim extremists, the Christian community in Iraq has been reduced by more than half. The US invasion and occupation, consequently, resulted in one of the largest Christian diasporas in history.
Except for a tiny enclave in the autonomous Kurdish region, there were no active al Qaeda cells in Iraq prior to the US invasion. They have since become a major threat, having massacred hundreds of Iraqi Christians, including 60 worshippers at a church in October 2010, since the United States "liberated" Iraq.
Though many of us familiar with Iraq predicted just this kind of extremist backlash in the event of an invasion of Iraq, President Bush - backed by such key Democrats as Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Dianne Feinstein and John Kerry - went ahead with the war anyway, including an occupation which deliberately exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions. (See my article "The US Role in Iraq's Sectarian Violence.")
Christmastide is the time of year when the Western media focuses some attention on the dwindling Christian population in the Middle East. There is a special place in the hearts of those of us who share that tradition with these descendants of the first Christians. Ironically, however, the plight of Arab Christians is often used by the right to demonize the Islamic faith and to rationalize the very policies which have led to their oppression and exodus in the first place.
The US-backed Egyptian dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak and, more recently, the US-backed military government, has deliberately incited sectarian violence which has been largely targeted at the country's Coptic Christian minority, numbering nearly six million.
Meanwhile, the US-backed Saudi regime denies the rights of Christians to worship openly.
Furthermore, Palestinian Christians, like their Muslim counterparts, have suffered greatly under a US-backed Israeli occupation, with the majority forced into exile. The US has blocked international efforts to stop Israel’s illegal colonization of occupied East Jerusalem and elsewhere in the West Bank encroaching upon Christian holy places in Bethlehem and elsewhere.
Prior to 20th-century Western intervention, Christian and Jewish minorities in the Islamic world - considered "people of the Book" due to their worship of the same God as Muslims - fared relatively well, certainly better than Muslim and Jewish minorities in Europe. "Allah" is simply the Arabic word for God, spoken both in mosques and in Arabic-speaking Christian churches. More than a century of Western colonialism, however, followed by more recent US interventions, has severely weakened this traditional tolerance.
So whenever you read the sanctimonious articles regarding the plight of Arab Christians, rather than simply bemoan the intolerance of some Islamic extremists, let's remember the role of Washington in creating the backlash that now threatens them.