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Western support of Iraq’s Christians has wavered. The Obama administration did not want to highlight the targeting of Christians, because it was committed to troop withdrawal and did not want to alienate Muslims. When two priests and around 40 worshippers were killed after al-Qaeda fighters stormed an evening Mass in Baghdad in 2010, the White House referred to it non-specifically, as a “senseless act of hostage-taking and violence”. Christians felt their violation had been minimised.

The role of the UN has come into question as some Christians, notably Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, claimed that camps run by its refugee agency, UNHCR, “are invariably run by Muslim officials who are often hostile to minorities” and are therefore avoided, along with the aid available there. Some Iraqi Christians claim they are discriminated against in applying for visas. While UNHCR denies both charges, the scale of its operations in Iraq ($547 million last year, but underfunded) makes verification difficult. The organisation’s reaction — denials rather than a pledge to investigate — have done little to assuage the concerns articulated by Lord Carey or the fears of Iraqi Christians. When Australia announced in 2015 it would prioritise victims of IS, namely minorities, in an intake of 12,000 refugees, it used its own processes, not UNHCR’s, to identify who should benefit.

The displacement of so many Iraqis and Syrians, marked out by IS because of their religion or ethnicity, has challenged a core aid principle. The Red Cross Code of Conduct, to which the big aid charities and donors such as Britain’s DfID, and USAID, adhere, stipulates that aid be given according to need, not creed. There is no room for short-term special treatment when a community is threatened with eradication, so for many displaced Christians the bulk of aid has come from small Western Christian charities.

Christians across the Middle East experience varying degrees of discrimination and violence — a legacy of Ottoman dhimmitude compounded by a lack of democracy and the rise of political Islam. After 2003 Christians in Iraq were seen as fifth columnists, and scapegoated. Insurgents bombed churches, and in 2006 al-Qaeda in Iraq systematically “cleansed” the Christian-majority Baghdad suburb of Dora. Many Christian-owned properties in Baghdad and Mosul have been appropriated or destroyed. In 2008 Mosul’s archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and found dead.

The post-invasion government of Nouri al-Maliki did not prioritise minorities, but shored up its own power base after decades of Shia marginalisation. The then-Chaldean Patriarch dismissed the trial and conviction of Rahho’s alleged kidnapper as “a charade”. Maliki so embittered Sunnis, by ignoring their concerns about soaring unemployment and poverty, that he is credited with enabling IS, which prides itself on having emptied whole regions of Christians,  to take root.

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