Soleimani’s Death Doesn’t End Iran’s Influence on Middle East Christians

Women chant slogans during a protest against the murder of General Qasem Soleimani. One week after the death of General Qasem Soleimani by the US military in Iraq, people across Iran’s cities mourned and expressed their hatred of the US government. Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani was killed last week by firing US missiles near Baghdad airport. (Photo by Babak Jeddi / SOPA Images/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Middle East Christians might shrug their shoulders. They might even fret and worry. But perhaps Qassem Soleimani got what he deserved.

“We regret what happened. We do not want anyone to die, because Christianity wants the good of all,” said Ashty Bahro, former head of the Kurdistan Evangelical Alliance.

“But a person leads himself to his own destiny.”

Soleimani, head of Iran’s special operations Quds Force, was killed by a US rocket strike on January 3. It was a rapid escalation following the Iran-linked death of an American contractor, a retaliatory attack on the responsible Iraqi militia, and the storming of the US embassy in Baghdad.

According to the US State Department, Soleimani, who reported directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, was responsible for 17 percent of American deaths in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.

He also enraged Sunni Muslims by engineering the subsequent Iranian defense of Syria’s regime, led by President Bashar al-Assad. With Russia and the Iran-backed military wing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the shelling of rebel-held cities resulted in the displacement of thousands during Syria’s civil war.

But Soleimani was also acclaimed for his role in fighting ISIS, personally directing Iraqi militias from the front lines.

Thus, Middle East Christians have mixed feelings about his death—and the immediate aftermath.

Some Syrian believers see no benefit to anyone.

“Iran was working with the US government in certain agreements. Why did you destroy them?” asked Maan Bitar, pastor of the Presbyterian churches in Mhardeh and Hama, noting both the fight against ISIS and the nuclear deal.

“This will prompt a severe reaction that will hurt America, and others.”

But not Christians. The general to replace Soleimani would continue Iranian policy, said Bitar.

And within this policy was a commitment to treat Christians well. Bitar believes Iran is very concerned to be viewed as an ethical people who fear God.

“When they made use of a deserted home, whether Muslim or Christian,” he said, “they left it in cleaner condition than when they entered.”

Bitar contributed to reconciliation efforts where the Syrian regime recaptured territory. But not everyone viewed the Iranian role as positive for Christians.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, there were 124 assaults on churches from 2011 to 2019, and 75 (60%) came from the regime.

And overall, the instability of war resulted in the loss of 75 percent of Syria’s Christians, according to Open Doors, which ranks the nation No. 11 on its watch list of the 50 countries where it is hardest to follow Jesus.

“There is an agreement between the extremist elements and the regime … and the Iranian militias,” Samira Moubayed, vice president of Syrian Christians for Peace, told Syria Direct. “[All] aim to displace Christians and change the culture [of Syria].”

Though this was not witnessed by Bitar, it was by Ashur Eskrya, president of the Assyrian Aid Society branch in Iraq. Iranian-backed Shabak Shiite militias patrol the ancient Christian homeland of Iraq’s Nineveh Plains.

Like in Syria, it is good propaganda to be conciliatory, he said. Iran promotes its interests through aligned Iraqi Christian militias and politicians.

But the Shabak have also prevented Nineveh’s Christians from returning home.

“If you have fighters who don’t follow the rules and want to change demography, it is the same as ISIS,” Eskrya said. “Soleimani is not Baghdadi [the American-killed caliph of ISIS], and the Shiite way of fighting is different from jihadis.

“But the agenda is the same.”

Eskrya highlighted the Nineveh Plains city of Bartallah, whose population used to be 100-percent Syrian Orthodox. Instability during the Iran–Iraq war resulted in the city’s Shiite population growing to 10 percent.

Today, the Shiite share is more than 50 percent, Eskrya said.

But Christian life continues in the now-mixed Bartallah. The city’s Christmas tree bore pictures of security forces who died to liberate the plains from ISIS. And local Christians expressed optimism for Iraq, due to the Shiite-led non-sectarian protests raging against corruption and foreign influence.

In particular: Iranian influence.

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Source: Christianity Today