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.