Unsurprisingly, Saddam Hussein did not exactly provide a warm home for Christianity. Nevertheless, Samuel Rizk, a spokesman for the Beirut-based Middle East Council of Churches, noted in July 2003: “There’s not much you can say about the old regime. But one thing you could say is that Christians enjoyed freedom to worship.” Hussein used Christians to help provide political balance. Still, living under a brutal dictatorship and international sanctions is hard, and the number of Christians fell from 1.4 million to 1.2 million or even fewer during the 1990s.
Saddam’s ouster led to a dramatic increase in indigenous evangelism and an influx of foreign Christians, including American troops. “A lot of Iraqis were seeing Christianity for the first time,” observes Jim Jacobson, president of Christian Freedom International. The result was an “explosion of conversions” and “underground, nondenominational churches.” However, notes Mindy Belz, international editor of World, that growth “tapered off as things have gotten worse.”
In short, “there is a very important window of opportunity,” as Jacobson puts it, which “probably will close soon.”
So far the government does not itself oppress, but Christians live—and die—in fear. They are targeted for robbery, extortion, and kidnapping because of their perceived wealth and the belief that they likely have foreign relatives with money. Christians also suffer from insurgent and sectarian violence. Car bombs don’t discriminate; U.S. translators are killed irrespective of their religion. Carl Moeller of Open Doors USA says, “Christians find themselves literally caught in the crossfire.”
Christian women were harassed for not wearing hijab. Some had acid thrown on them or were killed.
Although violence is worst in Baghdad, it reaches even into Kurdistan, where the political authorities are hostile. Last year, reported Kaplan, the Kurdish religious affairs minister said, “those who turn to Christianity pose a threat to society.”
Although virtually all Iraqi Christians were pleased to be rid of Saddam, some now say the unthinkable: they were better off under him.