When Iraqi Christians were safer under Saddam Hussein, despite the dictatorship


During the summer, we invite you to find articles distributed this year on the site. Today an article originally published on 21/03/2023.

This Tuesday, March 21 marked the twentieth anniversary of the outbreak of the second Gulf War which would lead to the fall of the bloodthirsty dictator Saddam Hussein and plunge Iraq into a torment from which it is struggling to recover. Under the rule of the tyrant, however, Christians enjoyed relative peace, unlike their co-religionists who live in other Arab-Muslim countries. A situation they shared with their brothers in Syria where the brutal power, also of Baathist inspiration, does not persecute Christians as such, but relies on minorities.

A figure marked Iraqi diplomacy, that of Tarek Aziz, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, also a Christian. The man, reputed to have no blood on his hands, however, never really cared about the country's Christians, positioning himself more as an Arab nationalist.

Born Mikhaïl Johannah in an Assyrian family, the number two of the regime had changed his name to get closer, like the future dictator, to the pan-Arabist movement supported by the Baath party created in 1944 by the Orthodox Christian Michel Aflak and the Sunni Muslim Salah Eddine Bitar . In its infancy, this socialist party, which is that of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, welcomed many Christians, in particular because it allowed emancipation by not linking identity to religion but to Arabism.

Persecution by Islamists since the fall of the dictator

"Those in power must end the persecution of Christians because we are all members of the same family, Christians and Muslims, we are sons of the same land."

It is with these words that the Assyrian patriarch Mar Addai challenged the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in February 2006 when leaders of Christian political parties were threatened with death. The same year, Christian women were raped, a Syriac priest beheaded or a 14-year-old boy was crucified.

The rise of the Islamic State, which reached its territorial maximum in 2015, before its defeat, favored a policy of broad extermination of minorities by attacking both adults and children. That year, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child denounced the murder of minors, in particular Christians and Yazidis, citing cases of "mass executions of boys, as well as beheadings, crucifixions and burying children alive".

A situation terribly different from that prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein where Christians and Sabians lived their faith with more freedom than in most countries in the region. Three years before Saddam Hussein's accession to the presidency, two-year Baathist Iraq had adopted a new constitution in 1970 whose article 4 of the 1970 Constitution made Islam the religion, however without mentioning Sharia . Article 25 provided for religious freedom "in accordance with morality and public order". Decree 32 of 1982 specified that the state recognized 17 religions, including Christians, Jews, Sabaeans and Yazidis, leaving each community to organize itself as it saw fit.

The Iraqi dictator did not, however, show great benevolence towards the Yazidis, today the most persecuted minority in Iraq and follower of a monotheism considered satanic, and the Baathist power tried to erase its identity by creating Arab villages on its territory, by practicing forced displacements.

He is also known for his violent repression of the Kurds, going as far as gassing 5 in 000, or having massacred thousands of Shiites after his defeat in the first Gulf War. He has however showed benevolence towards the Sabaeans, a monotheistic community, going so far as to authorize the creation of a place of worship for the community in Baghdad, the capital, seven months before the outbreak of the war, and he guaranteed the freedom of Christians.

Relative freedom for Christians, as Christians

In 2003, there were between 1,2 and 1,5 million Christians in Iraq, there would be three times less today. Secular in the East, that is to say without totally separating the State from Islam, the Baathist power financed the construction of churches and the restoration of convents and monasteries. Thus, 25 places of worship were erected in the capital under the Chaldean Catholic patriarch Paul II Cheikho. Syriac Catholics were able to publish hundreds of cultural and religious essays, subjecting them, however, to government censorship.

Under the dictatorship, Christians were not persecuted because of their faith, were not seen as a clan and political threat to power. In fact, if Christians were targeted by the regime, it was because of their activities deemed politically subversive and as individuals. Political freedom did not exist, religious freedom was granted to them.

However, proselytism was refused to them, and as much a Christian could convert to Islam, as much the opposite was not allowed. Joseph Fadelle, a Shiite Muslim who converted to Catholicism during his military service, says in his biography "The price to pay" that he was tortured at the request of a cousin member of the secret services, and had to wait before being baptized, because no priest dared to take this risk, the death penalty being applied in such a case.

Despite these obstacles, the Baathist regime did not discriminate against Christians socially. They were able not only to be members of the party co-founded by one of their own, but also to access high administrative posts. And if the eldest son of the dictator, Oudaï Hussein, did not hesitate to monopolize the goods of Christian families, but it was without targeting them because of their faith, because he also seized those of the members of other confessions.

Although religious freedom was officially maintained in the 2005 Constitution, the power could not control the violence against Christians. Christian refugees in France regret the time when they had work, lived in safety, even saying "We could sleep peacefully leaving the doors of our houses open", like Khalid, a refugee in France, who assures that he lived with Muslims and Christians without knowing which confession each was.

Many Iraqi Christians have fled to Syria where the Baathist dictator Bashar al-Assad welcomed them with open arms, keen to present another face of his country.

In this brotherly country, the dictatorial power is benevolent towards religious minorities, on the same principle as in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein. The father of the current president, Hafez el-Assad, relied on the minorities to establish his power, guaranteeing their protection in return.

The Assads themselves come from the Alouite Shiite minority, which represents 11% of the population. The Syrian Baathist power abolished the dhimmi status of Christians which made them second-class citizens.

In 2007, Hammoudé Sabbagh, of Christian faith, became speaker of parliament. In this secular country, Christians can build churches without more obstacles than Muslims, but also know the jails of the regime if they oppose it politically.

Jean Sarpedon

Image credit: Shutterstock/Homo Cosmicos

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