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Tuesday, April 8, 2003

Iraq's divided Christians.

Beliefnet has picked up — and so apparently vouches for — a story that had bloggers blazing a week ago. Ken Joseph, a Protestant minister from Japan who is ethnically an Assyrian-Iraqi-American, writes:

I was wrong. I had opposed the war on Iraq in my radio program, on television, and in my regular columns—and I participated in demonstrations against it in Japan. But a visit to relatives in Baghdad radically changed my mind.
I am an Assyrian Christian, born and raised in Japan, where my father had moved after World War II to help rebuild the country. He was a Protestant minister, and so am I.

What changed his mind?

A few weeks ago, I traveled to Iraq with supplies for our church and family. This was my first visit ever to the land of my forefathers. The first order of business was to attend church. During a simple meal for peace activists after the service, an older man sounded me out carefully.
Finally he felt free to talk: "There is something you should know—we didn't want to be here tonight. When the priest asked us to gather for a peace service, we said we didn't want to come because we don't want peace. We want the war to come."

When I first read this story, I dismissed it as so much propaganda. As with the human shield who discovered that Saddam's regime is really scary, my inclination has been to treat Ken Joseph's story as so much shattered idealism. But if Beliefnet is willing to give it some play, we might as well spend a moment on the simple fact that Iraqi Christians are divided about the merits of having Saddam Hussein's regime brought forcefully to a halt.

Jonathan Cohn reported a few weeks ago in The New Republic that Michigan's Iraqi-American community is divided about the U.S. war — along ethnic lines. "While Muslims overwhelmingly favor the assault on Saddam, Christians, who make up the vast majority of Michigan's Iraqis, have decidedly mixed feelings." These Christians are mostly Chaldeans. (As Ken Joseph suggests, Assyrian Christians may have another view.) Cohn writes:

Chaldeans have been leaving Iraq for places such as the United States since the turn of the century, first to find economic opportunity and later to flee political persecution. Indeed, it was the rise to power of the Baath Party, and eventually of Saddam, that sent what was probably the largest wave of Chaldeans to the United States from the 1960s through the 1980s. Nowadays, most Chaldeans have at least one family member or friend who has felt Saddam's wrath, even if they haven't felt it themselves . . .

Still, Saddam never singled out Chaldeans for the kind of vicious treatment he has visited upon Shia in the south or Kurds in the north presumably because Chaldeans never had the numbers to threaten him politically, as those other groups did. (Apparently, Saddam has also spared Chaldeans some of the cruelties he has visited upon Iraqi Assyrians, the Christian group from whom the Chaldeans broke off centuries ago and who have been outspoken critics of Saddam for years. According to Assyrian advocacy groups, in the 1970s, Saddam destroyed literally hundreds of Assyrian churches and villages as part of his effort to "Arabize" the population.) As a matter of fact, many Chaldeans within Iraq have remained loyal to Saddam, serving prominently in his regime (as in the case of Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz). For years, Saddam rewarded this service by interfering minimally in the Chaldeans' right to practice their faith. "To be honest, as bad as Saddam is, there are still Chaldean churches in Iraq," says Manna. "He hasn't targeted the Christians so much."

So what do we learn from this? That most of the Muslim Iraqi-Americans are refugees from the first Gulf War, when many Shi'ite Muslims joined the disastrous revolt against Saddam. That the Chaldean-Christian Iraqi-Americans have plenty of reasons to dislike Saddam, but see him as preferable either to war or to an Islamic regime in Iraq. And that Assyrian Christians may have suffered more targeted repression than their Christian cousins — which may explain the reaction Joseph received on his eye-opening visit.

But I'm left with a question even after visiting AssyrianChristians.com. What is this Protestant minister's stake in Iraq? Joseph's family left Iraq in 1919. It seems religiously and culturally inaccurate to describe him as an Assyrian Christian, although I can understand his interest in his family's heritage. But what is his Christian interest?

Could this story from Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network about Ken Joseph and Iraq's Christians hold a clue? "God could use this terrible situation not only as a way to bring the Christians back to the Middle East, but to bring revival to the oldest church in the world." I hate to be cynical, but many Protestants looking for a silver lining in Iraq are already waiting in Kuwait for a chance to evangelize. Is Ken Joseph's change of heart propaganda not for President Bush but for the 700 Club?

Update 4.9.03. According to a Christian Broadcasting Network story from before Ken Joseph's trip to Iraq, he is "a missionary." Ken Joseph is an interesting guy: An article in Buddhism Today two years ago identifies Joseph and his father as two advocates of the theory that Nestorian Christianity made it all the way to Japan around 1,500 years ago!

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 8 April 2003 at 4:16 PM

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