Published December 09, 2011
A rash of attacks on Christian-owned businesses in northern Iraq has raised troubling questions about the future safety of the country's shrinking Christian community, particularly as U.S. forces withdraw completely from the nation they've refereed since 2003.
The attacks, which have received little international attention, raged through northern cities following a sermon last Friday by a local mullah. Video purportedly from the riots posted online shows mobs burning and wrecking businesses, which included liquor stores, hotels and hair salons.
Yonadam Kanna, a Christian member of the Iraqi parliament and secretary-general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, confirmed to FoxNews.com that dozens of shops -- many Christian owned -- were attacked across multiple cities.
"The extremists prepared themselves to attack on more locations ... but they were prevented by local police and security in addition to some guards from the villages," Kanna said in an email.
The incident underscored the perilous circumstance the country's dwindling Christian population finds itself in, as U.S. forces withdraw and the surrounding region takes what could be an Islamist turn, if early results in the Egypt elections are any gauge.
"The Iraqi Christians ... are living in fear," said U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who is pushing for the creation of a special religious freedom envoy in the region. "Now with the forces leaving ... I think the Iraqi Christians are going to go through a very, very difficult time."
Urging the U.S. government to do more to draw attention to security concerns, Wolf said he "would not be surprised" if Iraqi Christians continue to face these kinds of threats.
The latest attacks began in the northern city of Zakho, and spread to several other cities.
According to local media in northern Iraq, the attacks began after a sermon Friday by Mala Ismail Osman Sindi, who reportedly railed against massage parlors in the community. A Muslim mob subsequently tore through the streets to destroy not only a massage parlor but more than two-dozen other businesses. The mullah later denied responsibility for inciting violence in an interview with the Iraqi newspaper Rudaw.
Kanna catalogued the damages. He told FoxNews.com that in Zakho alone, 16 liquor stores were attacked, 13 of them Christian owned and the rest owned by members of the Kurdish Yazidi community.
The attackers also targeted Yazidi-owned hotels, 11 Christian-owned hair salons, and the massage shop -- which according to Kanna is owned by a Muslim man.
According to the news site Ankawa.com, business owners later received death threats in the event they reopened.
Kanna expressed hope that law enforcement would investigate the crimes. Local officials are now calling for calm.
But David William Lazar, chairman of the American Mesopotamian Organization, suggested the mob attacks were not as spontaneous as they appeared.
"The mobs were carrying pictures and signs, and they knew exactly where to go," he said.
Lazar said the sectarian tensions surely will not dissipate as U.S. forces head home.
"It's a big mess," he said.
Asked who would be around to ensure security for the Christian population, he said: "Basically, no one."
He said Assyrian Christians and other groups are looking to form their own province, which could then stand up a police force -- but that would only cover the province's territory. He noted that the Assyrian Democratic Movement was among the first to disarm after the U.S. invasion.
The Iraqi Christian community has endured a wave of persecution during the Iraq war. According to the American Mesopotamian Organization and the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, the population has dropped from 1.4 million before 2003 to about 600,000.
Juliana Taimoorazy, founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, said the Christians -- who over the past decade have fled to surrounding countries to escape the violence -- are faced with limited options today. She said they simply can't go to Iran, Jordan can't handle more refugees and Syria is no longer safe.
"They don't know what tomorrow or the next day will bring, but really there's nowhere else to go," she said.
She questioned the security for Christians in northern Iraq, claiming the Kurdish regional government there did not initially intervene to stop the recent violence.
She also said it's "disturbing" the U.S. government has not spoken up on the latest attacks.
"We're on the verge of extinction," she said.
Taimoorazy said the weekend attacks did not result in any deaths to her knowledge. Many of the businesses were closed at the time, but she said the attacks caused millions of dollars in damage to the destroyed properties. The violence follows a deadly attack in Baghdad in October 2010, when dozens of Iraqi Christians were killed in an attack on a church.
A State Department official told FoxNews.com on Friday that in light of the recent riots, community leaders in Iraq must "reject such tactics, which only lead to division and violence."
"These riots were incited by hateful and intolerant rhetoric that is harmful to the interests of all Iraqis," the official said, adding that U.S. officials maintain "regular contact" with local officials in the region. The official noted that the Kurdistan Regional Government took "swift action" to combat the riots last Friday and condemned the attacks. The official said offices of the Kurdistan Islamic Union Party were also attacked.
Wolf praised the American Embassy team in Iraq and said they are well aware of the threats Iraqi Christians face. He urged the Obama administration to do more to speak up on the issue.
"They know this is a problem," he told FoxNews.com. "Our government ought to be advocating and ought to be pushing."