For the beleaguered indigenous Christians of the Middle East, there was hope the historic visit of Pope Francis to Iraq would bring much needed awareness to their plight.
Despite recognizing the “fading” presence of the region’s Christians, mainstream media has largely been complicit in reinforcing the systematic erasure of these ancient communities.
The Christians of the “Muslim world” take little solace in being portrayed as outsiders in the region they’ve inhabited since before the time of Christianity. Nor are they particularly delighted at their portrayal as a homogenous entity of “Iraqi Christians”–a reductionist mischaracterization of a diverse community that was propounded by Ba’athist and later Kurdish authorities to enforce the assimilation and disappearance of their distinct ethnic and cultural identities.
Assyrians are the predominant Christian group in Iraq, whose presence traces back to the birth of Mesopotamian civilization. Today, Assyrians in Iraq are often identified along their church denominations–with the Chaldean Catholics comprising the largest group, followed by members of the Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox Church and Syriac Catholic Church.
Armenians also form a significant minority within Iraq’s dwindling Christian community, dating back to Babylonian times. Larger waves of migration as a result of forced displacement in the 17th century and the Armenian genocide in the early 20th century led Armenians to settle in Iraq.
The modern history of the Christian community in Iraq has been defined by waves of persecution they’ve been subject to by both their neighbors and foreigners.
In the early 20th century, Assyrians suffered genocide alongside the Armenians and Greeks at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. Many of those displaced by the Ottomans became the victims of a subsequent genocide by Iraqi and Kurdish forces in 1933 known as the Simele massacre. Over the course of the next several decades, Assyrians would be subject to a campaign of Arabization by Ba’athist leaders seeking to assimilate, homogenize and co-opt Iraq’s Christian communities.
After the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the instability generated as a result of a power vacuum, Christian communities were left particularly vulnerable to the militant forces vying for control within the country.
While much triumphalism surrounded the Pope’s visit to Mosul, where ISIS once declared its crusade on Rome and desire to execute the Pope, few noted that the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq began not with the rise of ISIS–but with the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Since the invasion, the population of Assyrians in Iraq has fallen from over 1.5 million to fewer than 250,000 today.
Assyrian and Armenian churches and cultural sites routinely became the target of extremist attacks, while Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) forces took control of the Nineveh Plains–the ancestral homeland of the Assyrian and Yazidi people–there they embark on a campaign of Kurdification, mirroring in many ways the campaign of assimilation undertaken by the Ba’athist regime.
But amidst the fanfare of the Pope’s tour, one could have easily mistaken the papal visit for a press tour for the Barzani dynasty, Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling clan.
As the Pope toured streets lined with Kurdish flags and praised the Barzanis for “protecting” Christians, Iraq’s Assyrians were left wanting. Despite the Pope’s remarks–and portrayal by the media–to them, the KRG was no savior.
For the Assyrians, the KRG is the government that occupied their ancestral lands, that colluded in the killing and displacement of Assyrian communities and whose security forces disarmed Assyrian protection units in the midst of ISIS’ expansion. The same KRG that forcibly removed local Assyrian leaders from office, stifled political opposition and terrorized local communities.
The public expressions of Assyrian and Christian identity permitted during the fanfare of the Pope’s visit–highlighted by mainstream media as a testament to “peaceful coexistence”–would in normal circumstances be met with suppression, or not take place at all out of fear of repercussion. Even in this more relaxed atmosphere, local Assyrian groups were reported to have been prevented from participating in a celebratory parade because their uniforms were adorned with the Assyrian flag.
To the Assyrians, the KRG represents little more than a continuation of a familiar pattern of cultural repression, assimilation and disenfranchisement.
Instead of highlighting the systemic violence marginalized Christian communities still face, mainstream media advanced a most gratuitous redemption arc for the West in the aftermath of its destabilization of the region–one in which the U.S. is absolved for abandoning the region’s most vulnerable by whitewashing the abuses of a government it firmly backs.
This is an all too familiar story.
The Kurds have themselves been the victims of this grotesque revisionism. Celebrated and honored for their heroism in the fight against ISIS, the Kurds found themselves abandoned by the U.S. in their time of need when Turkey began its invasion and ethnic cleansing of northern Syria.
One report would lead the charge in defense of Turkey, suggesting Ankara’s genocidal intervention was actually the only thing preventing their massacre at the hands of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
A similar fate befell the Yazidi people, whose tragic plight was the subject of global attention during the height of ISIS as numerous governments condemned the genocide inflicted upon them. Now, as the survivors of those atrocities find themselves under assault by the warplanes of NATO-ally Turkey, the spotlight has faded.
There are also close parallels to the ways in which mainstream media covered Turkey’s Christian community during the years of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rise–or Azerbaijan in the wake of its invasion and occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh)–often emphasizing disingenuous overtures toward “reconciliation” and “cultural tolerance” that served only to sanitize the image of an oppressive authoritarian regime and vindicate the United States for its negligent inaction–all the while providing perpetrator governments with cover for the deepening undermining of minority rights.
While the papal tour to Iraq may have inspired hope in many, it also revealed how insidious the systematic erasure of Middle Eastern Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities, is–and how easily their experiences have been sidelined for the sake of political expediency.