After a decade of church bombings, targeted killings, and anti-Christian workplace discrimination, Ramy Youssef has finally tired of Iraq’s halting progress and is intent on emigrating.
“I don’t want to leave. I don’t want these terrorists to do what no one’s ever done before: push Assyrians out of our historic homeland, but I can’t work like this,” said the fresh-faced IT technician, his voice rising, as he sipped tea in his cousin’s Erbil liquor store a month after death threats forced him to abandon his business in Baghdad.
Youssef will be the last of his immediate family to jet off—joining roughly two-thirds of Iraq’s pre-war population of 1.5 million Christians who’ve fled abroad or trudged north to Kurdistan. Before he goes, though, he’s keen to set the record straight and settle some old scores.
“This is America’s fault. It’s the Muslims who are killing us, but this never would have happened if the West hadn’t turned our lives upside down,” he fumed. “Maybe we’ll be able to return one day if we have proper allies.”
Enter Putin stage right.
As far as some of his Iraqi co-religionists are concerned, there’s a ready-made alternative to American influence out there and they’re frantically trying to solicit its support.
“Russia proved through history that it’s the only defender of Christians,” said Ashur Giwargis, who heads the Assyrian Patriotic Movement (APM), which for two years has energetically lobbied the Kremlin to support an independent Assyrian Christian state in northern Iraq.
“The West is not Christian,” raged Aziz Emmanuel al-Zebari, a Chaldean Catholic church official, when we met in Erbil’s buzzy Christian quarter on a blazingly hot Ascension Day late in May. “They destroyed us by installing a government based on Islamic sects in which we have no place,” he added, as a sermon in Aramaic rang out from the distinctive Ziggurat-style cathedral in the background.
Amid all the bombast, Iraq’s Christians have some legitimate grievances. Once protected by Saddam—though subject to the same tyrannical rulings as the rest of the population—the community was left brutally exposed when the civil war that followed the US invasion of 2003 devolved into bitter sectarian strife.
Many Christians had initially rallied to the U.S.-led coalition’s side, enlisting as army translators and hailing its early successes, but as Western troops outgrew their welcome, Christians were damned by their association with the occupying powers.
“Muslims thought we were like the Americans, and so as they became more unpopular, our problems increased,” remembered Ramy Youssef, whose once friendly Baghdad neighbors ostracized his family as the occupation dragged on. (Some had it much worse. The U.S.’s hiring of a number of Lebanese Christian interpreters meant that anyone with a Lebanese accent was deemed suspect, and a number of visiting Beirutis were allegedly mistakenly killed.)
Several hundred thousand Iraqi Christians took advantage of loosened immigration laws to move to California diocese has mushroomed from 30,000 to 70,000 people since 2003, while Michigan alone has taken in over 120,000 Chaldeans and Assyrians.
Meanwhile, Putin’s continuing defense of Assad in neighboring Syria, at a time of peak unrest in Iraq, is seen as an admirable demonstration of Russia’s commitment to minority rights.
A sponsor like the Russians never would have allowed the Iraqi government to run roughshod over its Christian citizens, al-Zebari believes.
“They’ve always stood up for Christians. I’m sure they’d do more for us in our ancestral lands,” he reasoned, echoing Giwargis’ talking points.