The persecution of Christians in Iraq
December 20, 2019
When asked how long Christians have been persecuted, Tamara Zúñiga-Brown replied simply: “Millennia”. And she was correct; Christians have experienced religious persecution since the B.C. era. In our world today, however, Christians in the Middle East are experiencing violent discrimination from Muslim extremists commonly known as ISIS. These extremists also target other religious minorities and have killed countless moderate Muslims.
In the Middle East, Christians are subject to rape, murder, forced conversion, starvation, torture, enslavement, imprisonment, and ethnic and religious cleansing. Christian communities and villages are destroyed as well as churches. Religious statues have been torn apart, and the mass graves of Christians have had the crosses scratched from their tombstones. Christian women are sold into sex slavery. Women and children are kidnapped. Many Christians who have not fled their countries are exposed to routine violence and discrimination by their governments. The Trump and Obama administration has declared the slaughter of the Christian population a genocide.
Two decades ago, the Middle East was comprised of twenty percent Christians. Currently, that number is five percent. Christianity is near extinction in Iraq. In the 1980s, five-million Christians inhabited the country. Now that number is down to 150,000. Many fled to Australia, England, Sweden, and America in order to escape religious persecution. Thousands of Christians have fled to Erbil, the capital city of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, to do the same. This is where Tamara Zúñiga-Brown lived and worked during her time in Iraq. In September of 2016, Tamara traveled to Erbil where she helped open the first Catholic university in Iraq, the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE), in service to the Catholic Chaldean Church and Archbishop Bashar Warda. Ankawa is a primarily Assyrian suburb in Erbil and is the Christian section of the city. It is also referred to as the Chaldean quarter which references the Chaldean Catholic Church that is located there.
The school opened in October of 2016, after ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plain in August 2014, and Tamara served at the school as an English teacher, wrote the English preparatory year curriculum, was the director of the English program, and worked around the needs of the students in order to help them in whatever way she could. The school opened in order to provide hope to the people and foster community through an education in the English language. The mission at CUE is based on “Recognizing that optimizing an educational setting by opening it to all youth fosters the social cohesion required to counter extremist ideologies and rebuild a fractured society.” says Tamara.
The school faced many challenges from the beginning. The university adjusted the curriculum six to eight times in the first school year. This was due to incoming students and unpredictable circumstances. Tamara explains that “there is persecution happening everywhere”, and new students were never turned away. Most students were survivors of ISIS, and there were Muslim and Kurdish students, too. These young adults are encouraged to inspire hope and follow their ambitions. Many programs and projects have been started by students, including a journalism program, sports camps, and rosaries for orphans as many children have been left without any living family. Tamara hopes that “people know the good that is happening there, even with war raging thirty miles away.”
Tamara lived in Iraq for a total of ten months. There she saw first-hand the dangers facing the Christians of Iraq and the conditions they were forced to live in in order to be safe. She recalls IDPs (Internally Displaced People) living in camps in Ankawa. They lived in caravans, or trailers, with access to running water and camp stoves for cooking. “Everyone helps each other get what they need.”, says Tamara. “The Church supported the people to live with as much dignity as possible.” In Ankawa, shops and tiny businesses were operated by those who lived in the camps in order to regain a sense of normality by having a job and earning some income. Tamara lived in an apartment during her time in Iraq. She had water, heat and air conditioning in her neighborhood when the generators worked. “I was much better off than others.”, she says.
Tamara wants awareness of the positive efforts happening at the Catholic University in Erbil to be raised but she explains that nonetheless the situation is still volatile and dangerous, especially now that the United States has pulled their support from the Kurds, leaving thousands vulnerable to life threatening attacks once again. Tamara admits that she could have been in danger in Iraq but was grateful for the safety in Ankawa. Christians are currently faced with lack of aid financially, persistent religious discrimination, the status of second-class citizens and extremists’ teachings that Christians are infidels. Millions of dollars have already been raised to rebuild churches and provide food, shelter, medicine and education to the people there. Tamara reassures that all Muslims are not anti-Christian, it is the extremists that advocate for violence. Moderate Muslims are deeply saddened by the persecution the Christians are facing and are subject to violence as well.
Tamara left Iraq in May of 2019 after being evacuated. As of now she will not be returning but says that she might if the situation becomes more stable. She still keeps in contact with students, colleagues, and friends she had in Iraq over the phone. When she is not actively working in Iraq, Tamara gives talks and lectures about the persecution and discrimination of Christians in the Middle East and to advocate for them and raise awareness. “The work is needed. We need people to raise awareness and [we need] prayers.” Tamara asks that people continue to spread the word about the situation of Christians in Iraq and in the Middle East and that prayers be given for the safety and restoration of the lives of those who remain there.