Christians in Iraq belong to some of the oldest Christian sects in the entire world, but since the United States pulled out its troops last month, many believe that their future may be threatened. The rise of militant Islam has caused a Christian exodus from Iraq, even during the American occupation.

It is always hard to know how best to defend minority groups – especially religious ones – in hostile contexts. Considering the recent pullout, any pressure on the Iraqis by the American government may do more harm than good, since it could be miscontrued as an attempt to promote Christianity at the expense of the Muslim majority. There has certainly been a vocal anti-Muslim minority since the September 11th attacks in the U.S.; one needs only to look at the controversy over the construction of the Muslim Community Center at Ground Zero to see that. Though this has of course never been the official stance of the American government or even of the vast majority of the country, there is still a pervasive international view – especially in the Middle East -- of the United States as a country that often opposes Muslim interests. American foreign policy has already been damaged by these assumptions on the part of both Muslim and non-Muslim states; it would hardly help our already somewhat precarious position to “confirm” them.

Of course, the Iraqi government should promote the rights of Iraqi Christians independent of international pressure, but thus far the new government has failed to take decisive action on this critical issue. In the meantime, the Iraqi Christians have faced persecution. Many have already been driven from the country: there used to be 1.6 million Christians in Iraq, but now there are no more than 400,000. Most of them have fled to Turkey, seeking a more tolerant social and political climate. Nevertheless, these refugees continue to face a difficult road because the persecution of religious minorities is a problem that extends far beyond the borders of war-torn Iraq.

Owing to the fragile political situation in Iraq, the protection of Iraqi Christians poses a daunting challenge. International pressure from powerful countries will likely put the new Iraqi government on the defensive, and action from non-government actors may prove to be fruitless. Perhaps the solution is for the local, marginally more tolerant Muslim democracies (such as Turkey, Lebanon, and others) to put pressure on their newly independent neighbor. Of course, few of these largely Islamic governments have shown a strong inclination to defend the rights of religious minorities at all, however much they should from a human rights standpoint. Even if there is no expedient solution, the problem is not one that we can ignore. As we celebrate the end of the War in Iraq, we need to make sure that Iraq’s persecuted minorities are not forgotten. It is vital that Iraq’s fledgling democracy finds a way to avoid becoming a tyranny of the majority.