Christians Fear Catastrophe in US-Iran Conflict

The Middle East’s Christian population is wary of latest tensions between the nations could end up sparking a military conflict that engulfs the entire region and drives them from their ancient homelands.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo exits the plane at sunset as he arrives in Abu Dhabi on June 24 for meetings on Iran.The United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have jointly called for diplomatic solutions to ease soaring tensions with Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo exits the plane at sunset as he arrives in Abu Dhabi on June 24 for meetings on Iran.The United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have jointly called for diplomatic solutions to ease soaring tensions with Iran. (photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AFP/Getty Images)

The rainfall on Iraq’s Nineveh Plain promises a bountiful harvest of wheat and barley — and hopefully that bounty, in turn, will provide a bumper crop of economic benefits by drawing more people to the produce markets of Iraq’s Christian towns.

Five years after the Islamic State terrorist group marked them for genocide, many of Iraq’s Christians, like Yohanna Towaya, a resident of Qaraquosh, have been making plans to rebuild the Christian presence where it was first planted by St. Thomas the Apostle and his disciples nearly 2,000 years ago.

But the fate of these rebuilding plans was 10 minutes away from being decided for them. On June 21, President Donald Trump revealed that, following Iran’s downing of a U.S. surveillance drone, Tomahawk missiles were “cocked and loaded to retaliate.” An attack would have most certainly meant a setback for Christian progress in neighboring Iraq.

In the drone incident, the U.S. claimed that the unmanned aircraft (with an estimated cost between $110 and $220 million) shot down June 20 in the Strait of Hormuz was flying over international airspace, while the Iranians claimed it invaded its airspace. 

The incident is the latest to reflect the change in course of U.S. policy toward Iran, beginning in 2018 with the breakdown of talks between the two countries, after the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and imposed trade sanctions on Iran. In response, Iran vowed to increase its production of uranium, used for both the production of nuclear weapons and the development of its nuclear-power program.

Trump, who campaigned in 2016 on the promise to stop U.S. engagement in what he called “endless wars,” said during an interview with Fox Business Network that should war come, it would be brief and to the point:

“I’m not talking boots on the ground. I’m not talking we’re going to send a million soldiers. I’m just saying if something would happen, wouldn’t last very long.”


Fear of Instability

Although the U.S. airstrikes were called off because the estimated loss of life was considered disproportionate, Trump’s tweet following the canceled order sounded more like a stand-down than an overture for peace.

“I am in no hurry, our military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world,” Trump tweeted.

Such indications reveal that tensions remain unresolved between Iran — which makes no secret of its animosity against Israel and the West — and the United States. The tension keeps Christians throughout the Middle East on high alert, as the prospect of the U.S. and Iran going to war presents a kind of catastrophe whose size and scope is difficult to predict.

While the Trump administration estimated 150 people might have been killed by U.S. strikes, Christians in the region fear a military conflict between the U.S. and Iran could be the match that explodes what remains of their presence in much of the Middle East.

“The people are fearful for the future,” Towaya said. “They’re not sure what will happen to them.”

Towaya explained that Shiite militias roam across northern Iraq, making trouble for all who live there. Christians in their own towns are protected by Christian militias, such as the Nineveh Protection Units, allowing them to worship and live in relative freedom. But their Sunni neighbors chafe under militias backed by Shiite Iran.

“The Sunni want the war to happen because it will finish off the influence of Iran on Iraq,” Towaya said.

As for the impact on Christians, he said, “We don’t know what the Shia militia will do in that region.”

The worst-case scenario for them would be an Iranian-backed repeat of what happened to Christians following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when their communities were attacked in retaliation for U.S. military action in the country.

While Iraq’s Christians have experienced persecutions throughout their nearly 2,000-year history in the region, the past 100 years have seen the ancient community experience waves of genocide unequaled since Tamerlane’s Mongol Horde nearly exterminated the Church in Iraq in the 14th century.

“Our fathers and grandfathers suffered more than us, and they stayed with the earth,” Towaya said, referring to their agricultural-based communities in the region.

Following ISIS’ campaign of genocide in 2014, though, only 30%-40% of Christians have returned to their ancestral villages, and many are waiting to see whether they can live in peace and security. He predicted that if something goes wrong, “all the people will leave.”

“If conflicts start between Iran and the U.S.,” he said, “it’ll be catastrophic for Christians.”


Fear of the Unknown

Christians in Syria also fear what will happen if the U.S. and Iran go to war. Christians have benefited from the Syrian government’s protection against the existential threat posed by Daesh, the Arabic-language acronym for ISIS, al-Qaida spinoffs and other militant Islamic forces. But that security owes much to Iran’s military assistance and the firepower of the militias it sponsors.

Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo, Syria, told the Register that the Syrian people, not just the Christians, needed the Iranian government and U.S. government to find a compromise so people “could live their lives in peace.”

The archbishop said the situation for Christians remaining in Syria is stable, but he said there is great anxiety that the U.S. and Israel will target Syria as an ally of Iran and in doing so could unleash extremist forces and bloodletting that would provoke Christians to leave the country.

“You do not know what could be involved,” he said.

The archbishop explained that Christians will return to Syria if they can have peace and the economy is rebuilt to provide them opportunities to flourish. But that proposition is difficult if people fear a lack of food and work — and conscription into a war that cannot find an end.

Unlike the 2003 invasion of an isolated Iraq by a U.S.-led multinational coalition, Iran is not isolated and has alliances throughout the region. An Iran-U.S. war, he feared, would have instant repercussions.

“For everyone in the Middle East, it will be a kind of hell,” he said. “People will not be able to control the situation.”


Ready to Blow

Conflict between the U.S. and Iran could end up drawing in Sunni-Arab Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen (which is fighting its own civil war) and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Israel, on the one hand, and Iran’s allies and proxies, including Syria and the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, on the other.

One of the major casualties could be Lebanon, which is the only country in the Middle East where the head of state is a Christian and where individuals have freedom to change their religion.

Habib Malik, a history and cultural studies professor at Lebanese American University, based in Beirut and Byblos, told the Register that Middle East Christians could end up suffering as collateral damage in a war between the U.S. and Iran.

Malik said that if Iran experiences a “massive crippling blow early on,” he doubted Hezbollah would make any kind of move against Israel. But if Iran stood its ground and found it could survive a U.S. attack, then Hezbollah would respond asymmetrically through its regional proxies acting on their behalf through insurgencies and terrorist-style attacks targeting not only military forces but also civilian populations.

Hezbollah is an ally of Iran, but Malik explained that even though it may enter the war through its proxies to defend its ally, it is not itself in a favorable position to open a major front for Iran against Israel. Fighting in the Syrian Civil War has inflicted significant casualties on Hezbollah over the years.

In the last six months, Israel has discovered and destroyed tunnels prepared by Hezbollah for a surprise attack from the Lebanese border. In addition, Hezbollah’s support from the Lebanese population is doubtful, especially if they are blamed for plunging the country into ruin on the orders of Iran. Hezbollah can also count on no funds from Syria or Iran to rebuild.

“It really all depends on what happens in the first 24 to 48 hours in Iran,” he said. “Should they start something in Lebanon, Israel’s retaliation against them and Lebanon will be massive.”


Striving for Better

Malik said the Trump administration, at the very least, has voices within it that are more sensitive to the issues faced by Christians in the Middle East, and he’s hoping that those voices can influence the administration in any action regarding Iran. But these voices must contend with pro-military intervention voices in Trump’s administration, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, who helped lead the charge in the two Bush administrations’ decision to go to war in the Middle East.

Malik said keeping Lebanon intact as “the freest society in the Arab world,” thanks to the presence of “the last indigenous and free Christians in the entire region,” remains in the U.S.’ vital strategic interests.

If Lebanon, delicately balanced among its Sunni, Christian and Shiite populations, were to collapse under the weight of another regional war, Malik said, it would not just devastate the Christian community, but also be the loss of a voice for real “freedom” in the Arab world.

Wadih Daher runs Stream of Hope Mission, which supports the Lebanese bishops’ pastoral activity in Zahle and aid to refugees. He pointed out that Lebanon’s unity is tethered to the conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and feared the government would fall apart if a war occurred.

“If the U.S. takes side with Saudi Arabia against Iran, this will trigger a hatred situation among Sunnis and Shiites, and this will result in increase of terrorism,” he said. “And the first victims would be the Christians of Lebanon.”

The risk of conflict is that Lebanon and the other countries will empty of Christians. But if the U.S. strives to improve its relationship with Iran, Daher said, it could reduce tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran and between the Sunni and Shiites, allowing Christians to live in peace.

He said, “We all need the U.S. to be an honest player in bringing all countries together and reduce these tensions.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.