The End of Christianity in the Middle East?

The brutal bombing of a church in Baghdad may be the final straw for this 2,000 year old minority community.

Screaming "kill, kill, kill," suicide bombers belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant organization connected to al Qaeda in Iraq, stormed a Chaldean church in Baghdad on Sunday. A spokesman for the group subsequently claimed they did so "to light the fuse of a campaign against Iraqi Christians." The assailants' more immediate grievance seems related to a demand that two Muslim women, allegedly held against their will in Egyptian Coptic monasteries, be released. When Iraqi government forces attempted to free approximately 120 parishioners who had been taken hostage, the terrorists -- who had already shot dead some of the churchgoers -- detonated their suicide vests and grenades, slaughtering at least half the congregation.

But the massacre in Baghdad is only the most spectacular example of mounting discrimination and persecution of the native Christian communities of Iraq and Iran, which are now in the middle of a massive exodus unprecedented in modern times as they confront a rising tide of Islamic militancy and religious chauvinism sweeping the region.

Christians are the largest non-Muslim religious minority in both Iraq and Iran, with roots in the Middle East that date back to the earliest days of the faith. Some follow the Apostolic Orthodox Armenian Church. Others subscribe to the 2,000-year-old Syriac tradition represented mainly by the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq and by Aramaic speakers widely known as Assyrians in both Iraq and Iran.

Iraqi and Iranian Muslim leaders claim that religious minorities in their countries are protected. In September, former Iranian president Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani reassured the patriarch of the Assyrian Church of the East that religious minorities are respected and safeguarded in Iran. Yet members of Iran's Christian denominations, like their Jewish, Zoroastrian, Mandean, and Baha'i counterparts, don't feel safe. A member of the National Council of Churches in Iran, Firouz Khandjani, lamented in August, "We are facing the worst persecution" in many decades, including loss of employment, homes, liberties, and lives, he said, "We fear losing everything."

In Iraq, Chaldean and Assyrian Christian communities have witnessed increasing violence by militant Muslims against their neighborhoods, children, and religious sites since the U.S. invasion. Even pastors are not safe -- two died in the recent Baghdad bombing; many have been killed by Sunni and Shiite Iraqis since 2003. In Iran, other clergymen, including members of the Armenian, Protestant, and Catholic churches, have been arrested, kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, or even summarily executed, over the past three decades.

"Many Christians from Mosul have been systematically targeted and are no longer safe there," said Laurens Jolles, a UNHCR representative, in 2008, after Chaldean women were raped while their men, including Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, were tortured and killed in warnings to Christians to abandon their homes and livelihoods. In Iran, Christian clerics have been targeted -- Tateos Mikaelian, senior pastor of St. John's Armenian Evangelical Church in Tehran was assassinated in 1994, as was Bishop Haik Hovsepian Mehr, who headed the evangelical Assemblies of God Church.

Why Christians? Of the many justifications offered by al Qaeda and other fanatical groups in Iraq, and by hard-line mullahs in Iran, one is repeated most often: These indigenous Christians are surrogates for Western "crusaders." As early as 1970, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa accusing Christians in Iran of "working with American imperialists and oppressive rulers to distort the truths of Islam, lead Muslims astray, and convert our children." Fearing a backlash against their institutions and lives, Christians have often made efforts to prove their loyalty, as when Iranian Assyrians wrote to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in September denouncing American Christians who wished to burn Qurans as "enemies of God."

But the roots of Christian decline in the Middle East actually date back centuries. In Iran, intolerance toward all non-Muslim minorities took a sharply negative turn from the 16th century onward with the forced Shiification of Iran by the Safavid dynasty. The early 20th century saw pogroms against Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians in the Ottoman Empire and northwestern Iran. Under the Pahlavi shahs, Assyrians, Armenians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Baha'is regained some of their rights and came to represent the modernizing elements of 20th century society. But the Islamic Revolution of 1979 undercut all those advances. Prejudice and oppression now occurs with impunity.

The numbers speak for themselves: The population of non-Muslims in Iran has dropped by two-thirds or more since 1979. From Iran, these groups flee to Turkey and India -- often at risk to life and limb through the violence-ridden border regions of Iraq and Pakistan. The number of Assyrian Christians in Iran has dwindled from about 100,000 in the mid-1970s to approximately 15,000 today, even as the overall population of the country has swelled from 38 million to 72 million people over the same period. In Iraq, Christians are fleeing in droves. U.N. statistics indicate that 15 percent of all Iraqi refugees in Syria are of Christian background, although they represented only 3 percent of the population when U.S. troops entered in 2003. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that between 300,000 to 400,000 Christians have been forced out of Iraq since 2003. And Christians have left because the message from Sunni militants and Shiite ayatollahs is crystal clear: You have no future here.

There is now an alarming possibility that there will be no significant Christian communities in Iraq or Iran by century's end. Christian schools, communal halls, historical sites, and churches are being appropriated by national and provincial governments, government-sponsored Muslim organizations, and radical Islamist groups. Economic and personal incentives are offered to those who adopt Islam. Last month, the Vatican convened a major summit to find ways of mitigating this crisis, noting that "Christians deserve to be recognized for their invaluable contributions ... their human rights should always be respected, including freedom of worship and freedom of religion."

There is a faint glimmer of hope. On Aug. 5, the U.S. Senate adopted Resolution 322 expressing concern for religious minorities in Iraq. The quick, though unsuccessful, attempt by the Iraqi government this weekend to rescue the Christian hostages appears to have been in response to such American pressure -- no official Iraqi interventions had occurred in previous attacks.

In Iran, however, the persecution of Christians continues unabated. Two Protestant pastors, arrested in post-presidential election crackdowns, face the death penalty. An Assyrian pastor was arrested and tortured in February 2010 and faces trial too.

The Senate resolution noted that "threats against the smallest religious minorities … jeopardize … a diverse, pluralistic, and free society," words applicable in full measure to Iran as well. Will Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government heed this call? It's doubtful. But one thing's for certain: If the world doesn't champion religious freedom openly and vigorously, he won't have to.



The Supreme Leader's Not-So-Grand Tour

Ayatollah Khamenei's latest bid to shore up his religious credentials was a miserable failure.

If you're skeptical of the recent coverage from Iranian government sources showing how enthusiastic crowds greeted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, on his recent trip to Qom, one of the theological centers of Shiite Islam, you should be.

Photos and film from IRNA, Iran's state news agency, depict him meeting thousands of cheering admirers, arms waving with fervor. Last week, IRNA published a blizzard of stories running down Khamenei's meetings with religious scholars and seminary students, all intended to send the message that the leader is not only firmly in charge of his country, but also revered as its highest religious authority.

But when one takes into consideration that many of those supporters were not spontaneously assembled masses, but rather basiji (members of the paid militia that is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), the waving crowds are suddenly less impressive. True, Khamenei's real mission was to secure the blessings of Qom's top ayatollahs, and he did meet some important ones: Loftollah Safi Golpayegani, Hossein Nuri Hamadani, Mohammed Hosseini Shahroudi, Naser Makarem Shirazi, and Mousa Shobeiri Zanjani.

But the most senior and influential grand ayatollahs stayed away in droves. Abdolkarim Mousavi Ardebili, Bayat Asadullah, Hossein Vahid-Khorasani, Mohammad, Muhammad Ali Gerami Qomi, Sadegh Rouhani, Yusef Sanei, and Seyed Hosseini Shirazi, among others, would not meet with Khamenei. One press account by the Tabnak website, closely associated with former Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Mohsen Rezai, noted that Khamenei met with the children of prominent cleric and Grand Ayatollah Hossein Vahid-Khorasani, but not with the ayatollah himself, a prominent critic. The supreme leader -- a man who rose to his exalted position through political hardball, not religious scholarship -- had clearly hoped to shore up his shaky religious stature during his trip to Qom. Instead, he only showed just how isolated he has become.

The story of the Qom clerics' rejection of Khamenei, a biting irony in a theocracy, stretches back decades and is entangled in the opaque intricacies of Shiite Islam as practiced in post-revolutionary Iran.

After the 1979 revolution, Iran's constitution mandated that the supreme leader be a cleric of senior rank, a major mujtahid. A major mujtahid is a cleric whose collected judicial rulings in all areas of life have been popularly acclaimed as demonstrating ijtihad, a comprehensive expertise in interpreting Islamic law. The position of the Supreme Leader was restricted to those very few senior clerics who could be deemed a marja, a major mujtahid universally recognized as being highly worthy of emulation. Such marjas usually have very large and devoted personal followings; they are theological rock stars. There are no exact rules, but generally speaking, major mujtahids are usually grand ayatollahs. Below that rank is ayatollah, and below that rank is hojjatoleslam, a rank similar to a monsignor or minor bishop in Catholicism. Each of those ranks is usually separated by years of study, thought, and an accumulation of judicial rulings examined for theological soundness in "peer review" by the clerical establishment. Anyone designated as a mere hojjatoleslam should therefore have fallen far short of the theological horsepower and popular following required by law.

How then, did Hojjatoleslam Ali Khamenei come to be the supreme leader, and what does that have to do with his October 2010 trip to Qom?

Once upon a time, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri was the designated successor to Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, but after criticizing the many excesses of Khomeini's regime, Montazeri was pulled from the running and eventually placed under house arrest in Qom, where he continued to lambaste the Iranian government until his death in late 2009. Not liking the field of potential successors, Khomeini had the Iranian constitution changed shortly before his death in 1989 to allow someone with a far less distinguished pedigree in Islamic jurisprudence to take the helm as supreme leader. This rejiggering of the constitution, along with the support of the powerful Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, helped paved the way for Khamenei's ascension. Suddenly, it was as if this "monsignor," a minor mujtahid whose only book of judicial rulings had never even been printed in Farsi, was catapulted past more learned and senior bishops, archbishops, and cardinals to become pope. Little wonder that the ayatollahs of Qom have quietly dug in their heels and resisted Khamenei's attempts to gain religious stature by associating himself with them.

Nor is this his first attempt at the ruse.

Roughly 10 years ago, Khamenei traveled to Qom and "bent the knee" by going to personally visit many senior Shiite clerics, an effort that won him no noticeable support and had little effect on his theological stature. The unstated hope of "round two" in Qom was that the senior clerical establishment would endorse Khamenei's religious authority by either personally going to see the leader at his temporary residence, or by attending his public rallies and prayer services. One account before the trip began even suggested that the purpose of the trip was to gain endorsement for the supreme leader to attain the rank of marja-e-omoom, the definitive source for emulation and a clerical rank that has not been filled since 1961 -- one that even Khomeini did not seek to claim.

With limited exceptions, the senior clerics stayed away, and the hoped-for validation of Khamenei's religious stature has once again failed to materialize. In an interview last week with Radio Farda, Hamburg-based Iranian dissident Hassan Shariatmadari, son of Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Kazem Shariatmadari, commented on Khamenei's dismal reception, "If they accepted his authority, he would have not spent so many days [in Qom] and exerted such pressure to force marja to meet with him."

One notable exception was the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers, a group that until the Iranian presidential elections of 2009 could have been described as solidly pro-government. A second day of meetings between society clerics and the supreme leader was inserted into the agenda at the last minute and took place on Thursday, Oct. 28, which extended Khamenei's trip one day.

Meeting with this group, though, is unlikely to bolster Khamenei's credentials. In 1995, the society named Khamenei as a possible marja, but there were one or two bobbles with that particular nomination. Usually the death of one marja produces the nomination of a single ayatollah as a replacement. The society used the occasion to nominate seven replacements, Khamenei among them, and at the same time, claimed that two ayatollahs already deemed worthy of emulation should no longer be considered so. Whatever the society may have sacrificed in religious legitimacy, it was admittedly efficient for them to combine a blatant ballot-stuffing exercise with a clerical "Night of the Long Knives." After the society's nomination, Khamenei was generally accepted as an ayatollah (although he terms himself a grand ayatollah), but some top clerics still refuse to recognize him as such.

According to Rooz Online, a reformist website, the reason for Khamenei's trip extension was to convince the society to do the same favor for his hard-line son, Mojtaba Khamenei, as they did for the supreme leader in 1995: getting Mojtaba declared a marja, thus opening up an eventual path for the son to succeed his father.

In his autobiography, Montazeri wrote that Khamenei's first mention of holding the rank of ayatollah did not actually come from any Shiite religious authority, the normal path of advancement, but rather from booklets produced by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, printed in Urdu and sent to Shiite communities in Pakistan and India, who immediately questioned the nomination. Upon notifying the ministry that its attempted end run to elevate Khamenei had not worked, Montazeri was rebuked by Iranian officials and people were warned not to communicate with him. It seems, then, that Khomeini's shenanigans with the Society of Qom Seminary Teachers were hardly the first time he has tried to secure undeserved clerical rank.

Looking down the road, Khamenei's future prospects for support from Qom are only growing worse. The clerics' rejection of the supreme leader was not solely based on a thinly veiled contempt for a theological hack's efforts to wrap himself in a mantle of unearned authority. Just as important is the philosophical difference that has evolved in post-revolutionary Shiite Islam about the proper role for a cleric in political life. After witnessing decades of abuses under a government helmed by clerics, Montazeri, one of the architects of the 1979 Iranian Revolution, reversed his earlier views and stated that clerics should serve only as advisors to the temporal ruler, not as the ruler themselves. This is a view shared by other ayatollahs, including Grand Ayatollah Dastgheib and the widely revered Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is Iranian by birth though now lives in Iraq.

Iran continues to show new signs of the economic strains on a daily basis; one of the latest being a ban by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the publication of any negative statements about the planned elimination of economic subsidies that have been the bedrock of popular support for the Iranian government. Bad economic news continues to exacerbate the internal divisions brought to the forefront by the rigged 2009 presidential elections. The Green Movement is quiet -- violently suppressed but by no means finished forever.

If Khamenei was hoping to turn things around with a dramatic show of religious unity and power, then his visit to Qom was a miserable failure. Indeed, what is most notable about the trip is what did not happen: Neither Khamenei nor his son got any official elevation in their status; no grand religious initiative arose from the trip, and he was most definitely not greeted with open arms by most senior ayatollahs. The supreme leader won't be resting easy this week.

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