As almost everyone in the United States, and the rest of the West, knows Iraq recently held a historic election to approve a new democratic constitution. Personally, I celebrated this event. I also celebrated the removal of Saddam Hussein and the success of the previous election to set up a freely chosen parliament. Who can see those pictures of people holding up their purple finger (as a sign that they voted) and not be thrilled?
So why do I have reservations about this new constitution? I am nervous about this new democracy in Iraq for an entirely different reason. Under Saddam’s brutal rule the church in Iraq was given relative freedom. Saddam didn’t care how many Christians there were in his country so long as they did not become part of any violent movement to challenge his rule. This Christian population consisted of several different expressions of the church, including Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. There was, under Saddam, a fairly healthy minority of Christians in Iraq. Estimates range from as many as 900,000 to one million Christians. And new converts could join the church with little or no opposition. Iraq might have been formally closed to Western missionaries but the church existed openly and did so with more freedom than it enjoys in almost every other Middle Eastern country, including democratic Israel. Even certain types of evangelism were allowed in Iraq, though they were watched carefully.
The problem now is that this new constitution has established a Muslim state in Iraq. This means, quite simply, that conversions from Islam to Christianity will lead to harsh penalties, including death. This new constitution, celebrated by the Bush administration and many of its powerful evangelical friends, means the end of real personal religious freedom in Iraq. Is this what we had in mind in this campaign? I don’t know about you but I am not content to do nothing about this. We must not go along with political positions from the right just becuase the majority of evangelical spokesmen support these larger policies, especially when the lives of our brothers and sisters are impacted so harshly.
According to certain recent estimates, over 40,000 Christians a month are presently fleeing Iraq. Within a few more years there will be almost no Christian presence in this country. This is a great tragedy, especially since a historic church existed in Iraq for many centuries. I wonder why the typical critics of US foreign policy, on both the left and the right, are so silent about this issue.
I am also reminded that when the early church lived under very bad emporers in Rome the church was often left alone. But when strong emperors came to power and wanted to consolidate their power, and protect their rule, they bore down on the church with persecution and religious cleansing. Not much has changed in some parts of the modern world. What needs to change now, at least in our churches, is how Christians in free lands see this issue and then respond to it.