Soleimani air strike could mean new danger for Iraqi Christians

shutterstock 585782177 1 Armenian church behind barbed wire, Baghdad, Iraq. Via Shutterstock.

Christian communities in the Middle East are likely to suffer renewed persecution amid the instability following recent U.S. airstrikes, experts have warned. 

Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, was killed in a Jan. 3 airstrike at Baghdad International Airport, ordered by President Donald Trump. Also killed in the strike was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iraqi militia which has fought against ISIS. 

The airstrike followed an attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, and U.S. officials claim that Soleimani had planned additional attacks against Americans. 

Christian groups say that in the face of escalating conflict and instability in the country and region, focus must be maintained on the marginalized religious populations in the country. 

"General Soleimani and his Quds Force wreaked havoc on Christians and others in Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria for decades. We pray his passing will mark the end of an era of terrorism and instability," said Peter Burns, director of government relations and policy at In Defense of Christians.

But, Burns added, there are concerns that the region will become unstable, which could have "increased probability of counterattacks on religious minorities."

"IDC is closely monitoring the situation to ensure that such attacks do not happen," he said.

His organization is calling for the governments of Iraq and Syria to work to "ensure the safety of protesters who have already been targeted by Iran-aligned thugs," and, Burns noted, Christians in these countries have protested alongside Muslims while seeking political and economic reforms. 

"Their right to gather and call for change should not be threatened by Iranian retaliation violence," said Burns.

While it is unclear what the fallout of the Jan. 3 strike will be, many are warning that Christian populations may be put at an increased risk of terrorism and other attacks. 

"Whatever happens next in Iraq, it is important that we not lose sight of the plight of the Christians in that country who have historically been disproportionately affected--and often directly targeted--in situations and upheaval and violence," said Andrew Walther, Vice President of Communications and Strategic Planning of the Knights of Columbus in a statement to CNA. 

"The safety and survival of these communities, which were just recently decimated by ISIS' campaign of genocide, must remain a priority," said Walther. 

The Knights of Columbus has spent more than $25 million over the last five years to assist the plight of Christians in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria. 

Fr. Luis Montes, an Argentinian priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word and a missionary in Iraq, told ACI Prensa that the attack is "quite serious," but explained that there has not yet been anything "directly against Christians in this regard."

Montes told ACI Prensa, CNA's Spanish-language news partner, that he is concerned that the threat of instability in Iraq will "make life harder for Christians." 

"The war affects us Christians more than others because there are fewer of us, we're more unprotected" from the "the insecurity and violence," he said. Most Christians have left the region, which further erodes efforts to help stabilize the country. 

"All this instability and violence is the perfect opportunity for violent people, for the terrorists, for interests outside the country interested in the country's resources, and this is adverse to the population," said Montes. 

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Edward Clancy of Aid to the Church in Need also expressed concern about how the new instability would harm the Christian population. Clancy, who works as the group's outreach director, told CNA that his initial reaction to hearing about the airstrike was "'Oh no,' but also hopeful at the same time." 

"Terrorist activity will disproportionately affect the Christians. Not necessarily in the numbers killed, but in the numbers that remain. People will leave, because of lack of safety," he said. 

"So right now, it is of utmost importance, whoever can provide it, give to the Christian community [a sense of] security," said Clancy. 

Clancy especially highlighted the the Nineveh region, traditionally home to some of the world's oldest Christian communities, where there is a lack of infrastructure and communication networks, and Christians are left "high and dry" in a "very difficult situation." 

The community there is "very vulnerable right now," Clancy said.

"We just have to be really, really vigilant about praying for these people, and we also have to put pressure on people in charge to make sure [the Christian community] is not forgotten."

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