World Affairs Journal

Barbarism 2014: On Religious Cleansing by Islamists

Nina Shea
Nina Shea
Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Religious Freedom
(JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
(JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

In a brief, nationally televised announcement on August 7th regarding the Islamic State, which invaded the multicultural, northern Nineveh Province of Iraq this summer, President Obama observed that “these terrorists have been especially barbaric towards religious minorities, including Christian and Yazidis.”

The brutal persecution of Iraq’s non-Muslim religious groups is part of a human rights atrocity that is as grave as it is overlooked in American foreign policy. The president’s eight-and-a-half-minute speech hardly scratched the surface. In fact, what the Islamic State, also called ISIS or ISIL, is undertaking in Iraq, as part of its effort to establish an Islamic caliphate, is a religious cleansing intended to eradicate the entire presence of the country’s non-Muslim citizens. Nor is this campaign restricted to Iraq. Similar campaigns are under way in other countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. They are being carried out by a multitude of extremist groups and directed against a variety of minorities, although they are directed most commonly and with special zeal against Christian communities that in some cases have coexisted with Muslims for more than a thousand years. Militant groups such as the Islamic State are mostly to blame, but extremist influences have also gained official footing within some governments. In most places where religious oppression of Christians is taking place, Christians and other targeted religious communities find that their governments typically turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to their plight.

In Iraq and Syria, for example, the two-thousand-year-old Christian communities are facing an intense wave of religious persecution that has led to a panicked exodus of their members from the region. Even before this past summer’s attack by the Islamic State on the Christian centers of Mosul, Qaraqosh, and all other Nineveh towns, leaders of the Iraqi church reported that one million, or between one-half and two-thirds of their community, have fled the country since 2003.

Last year, Archdeacon Emanuel Youkhana of the Assyrian Church of the East, observed: “Behind the daily reporting about bombs there is an ethno-religious cleansing taking place, and soon Syria can be emptied of its Christians.”

Bishop Angaelos of the UK Coptic Orthodox Church told the US Congress last December that attacks against Egypt’s Copts—the most robust Christian community in the Middle East—by “radical elements” are not merely targeting individuals, but “the Christian and minority presence in its entirety.”

It is little wonder why, in December 2013, Patriarch Louis Sako of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church, speaking at a conference in Rome sponsored by the Jesuit Georgetown University and the Baptist Baylor University, said: “We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, ‘If they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West?’”

Some three hundred prominent American Christian leaders were moved to respond to Sako’s remarks, and, assembling in the US House of Representatives on May 7, 2014, pledged to call together their communities to pray, educate, and engage in foreign policy on behalf of the targeted minority communities in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Present were Catholic Cardinal Donald Wuerl, an Armenian and a Greek Orthodox bishop, and various heads of large Protestant bodies, including the National Association of Evangelicals. This “Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action on Behalf of Christians and Other Small Religious Communities in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria” was also signed by other American Christian bishops and mega-church pastors, who collectively lead the majority of American churches, as well as by a bipartisan mix of prominent lay leaders.

The pledge identified common practices of religious violence against Christians occurring in those three countries. These practices are also the types of persecution experienced by Christians today in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, and a growing list of other countries as Islamic extremism spreads. They include:

* Churches—sometimes while full of worshippers—monasteries, cemeteries, and Bible centers are deliberately demolished and crosses on others are removed.
* The building and repairing of churches are curbed and prohibited.
* Private Christian homes, businesses, and lands are looted, confiscated, or destroyed because some challenge Christians’ right to property, thus curtailing livelihoods.
* Christians, including some clergy, after being identified as such by their names, identity cards, or some other means, are beheaded, shot execution-style, or otherwise brutally murdered. * Clergy are killed for their peace-making efforts or simply as personifications of the Christian faith.
* Christians, including bishops, priests, pastors, and nuns, are kidnapped and held for ransom.
* Young women are abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry their captors.
* Christians are told to convert to Islam or be killed; some are forced to pay protection money.
* Muslim apostasy and blasphemy codes and standards for dress, occupation, and social behavior are being enforced for Christians, as well as for Muslims.

It should be noted that such assaults continue despite their rejection by the majority of Muslims and their condemnation by prominent Muslim voices, such as Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan and the Iraqi Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

In some areas, Christians are being targeted for assassination by Islamic extremists and radicalized mobs. These attacks differ from the chronic violence in Muslim-majority countries directed generally against “apostates” from Islam. While these targeted murders frequently occur in the context of larger conflicts, the victims should not be mistaken for war casualties, since they are neither combatants nor hapless subjects of collateral damage.

Some radical groups have been blunt in openly declaring their intent to eradicate all infidels. In Somalia, in 2003, Sheikh Nur Barud, vice chairman of an influential Somali Islamist group, declared, “All Somali Christians must be killed according to the Islamic law.” For a decade, moreover, the Somali extremist group al-Shabab has killed Christians, converts or not, irrespective of their individual behavior. One example is that of Italian Catholic nun Sister Leonella Sgorbati, Somalia’s Mother Teresa, who had lived in Somalia for forty years, giving medical aid to the poor. In 2006, she was shot in the back outside a Somalia hospital. In March of this year, near the capital city of Mogadishu, Abdishakur Yusuf, the leader of five underground Protestant congregations, was shot in the head five times by extremists.

On April 7th of this year, assassins burst into the monastery of Jesuit priest Frans van der Lugt in Homs, Syria, and shot him twice in the head. Although the priest had carried out humanitarian work there for some fifty years, in 2014 he was suddenly a symbol of the “infidel,” one of fewer than two dozen Christians remaining in Homs out of what had been until recently a population of eighty thousand.

Several other Syrian clerics have been murdered in cold blood since 2011. In Raqqa, another renowned Jesuit and man of peace, Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, was abducted and reportedly executed by rebels in July 2013. In February 2013, twenty-seven-year-old Father Michael Kayal, of Aleppo’s Armenian Catholic Church, was pulled off a bus when Islamist gangs spotted his clerical garb. He’s presumed dead. A similar fate befell the Greek Orthodox priest Maher Mahfouz around the same time. In December 2012, reports surfaced of the abduction of Syrian Orthodox priest Fadi Haddad, taken as he left his church in the town of Qatana to negotiate the release of one of his kidnapped parishioners. A week later, his mutilated corpse was found by the roadside, his
eyes gouged out.

Iraq has also seen a rash of high-level clerical assassinations. In November 2006, Father Mundhir al-Dayr was taken from his Protestant church in Mosul and found later with a bullet in his head. As they went about their ministry in June 2007, Father Ragheed Ganni and three deacons were gunned down in their car, which was rigged with explosives to prevent anybody retrieving their bodies. Anglican Canon Andrew White, who leads a Baghdad ecumenical congregation, reported in November 2007: “All of my leadership were . . . taken and killed—all dead.”

Earlier this year, an Armenian Orthodox bishop from the region told me that two jihadis stopped and searched a bus in Syria, and from the group of largely Kurdish passengers took away two whom they identified from their names as Armenian Christians; soon, the jihadis returned and presented the passengers with a box containing the severed heads of the two Christians.

Prominent laypersons are also marked for assassination. Pascale Warda, Iraq’s minister of migration in 2004 and a Christian, survived four assassination attempts, including one that killed her four bodyguards. Iraq’s lay Christians have also been targeted for not abiding by Muslim dress or social codes. There are numerous documented reports of Christians killed by extremists for mingling with the opposite sex, or for operating “un-Islamic” businesses, such as liquor stores, cinemas, and hair salons. In 2010, roadside bombs blew up a convoy of school buses organized by the Catholic diocese to transport university students from the Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain to the University of Mosul. The attack occurred despite an army escort. Sandy Shibib, a young woman studying biology, was killed from shrapnel wounds to her head; one hundred and sixty others were injured. After this episode, a thousand Christian students withdrew from the university, which was exactly the result the terrorists hoped for.

Some Islamic extremists present Christians with an alternative to death: conversion to Islam, or acceptance of a second-class citizenship that sometimes involves paying protection money. Fear that their flocks will be consigned to this second-class status is one of the greatest concerns expressed by Middle Eastern Christian leaders, who understand that it will create unbearable pressure on them to emigrate.

In 2006, Sunni extremists in Baghdad’s Dora neighborhood issued a fatwa specifically giving this choice of conversion or death to the two thousand resident Christian families. The neighborhood was emptied of its Christians overnight. One of those who left was Donny George, the former head of the Baghdad Museum who is credited with saving most of its antiquities from looting during the US invasion of 2003. He told me that he fled with his family after receiving a letter repeating the threat and containing a bullet. Like nearly all the other Dora Christians, he never returned. He later died in exile.

In July 2014, ISIS, after declaring the establishment of the Islamic State, told Christians in Mosul to “convert or die,” after stamping their homes with a red Arabic “nun” letter, or “N,” standing for Nazarene, a term for Christians. The Christians who could, fled, typically only with the clothes on their backs. Those who were too sick or old to leave were forced to become Muslims. All Mosul’s churches were shut down and stripped of their crosses, with some destroyed and others outfitted with loudspeakers to call Muslims to prayer and serve as mosques. Neither President Obama nor any member of his Cabinet took note of these developments until ISIS threatened to kill the residents of Sinjar, who were mostly Yazidis.

Some Syrian Christian refugees in Jordan told of a similar experience. As reported by Dutch journalist Martin Janssen (translated by the Reverend Mark Durie, an Anglican priest):

Jamil lived in a village near Idlib where thirty Christian families had always lived peacefully alongside some two hundred Sunni families . . . . One Friday trucks appeared in the village with heavily armed and bearded strangers who did not know anyone in the village. They began to drive through the village with a loud speaker broadcasting the message that their village was now part of an Islamic emirate and Muslim women were henceforth to dress in accordance with the provisions of the Islamic sharia. Christians were given four choices. They could convert to Islam and renounce their “idolatry.” If they refused they were allowed to remain on condition that they pay the jizya. This is a special tax that non-Muslims under Islamic law must pay for “protection.” For Christians who refused there remained two choices: they could leave behind all their property or they would be slain. The word that was used for the latter in Arabic (dhabaha) refers to the ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals.

According to the account, a number of families began to pay the jizya but, after the amount to be paid kept increasing over several months, the Christians decided to flee, leaving behind their farms and property. Some who could not pay or escape were forced to convert to Islam.

Last February, in Raqqa, Syria, now controlled by the Islamic State as part of its caliphate, a detailed, written “dhimmi contract” was signed by some twenty Christian leaders. (Their blurred signatures appear on the bottom of the contract, found online.) They agreed to abide by Caliph Umar’s purported seventh-century rules for “People of the Book,” including: bans on renovating and rebuilding churches and monasteries, the public display of crosses and Christian symbols, and the ringing of bells. They are forbidden from reading scripture indoors loudly enough for Muslims outside to hear, and practicing their faith publicly, at funerals or wedding processions, for example. They are prohibited from offending Muslims or Islam. The women must be enshrouded, and alcohol is banned. They must also pay a specified jizya in golden dinars. If these rules are kept, the document states, they have the dhimma, or protection, of the Prophet Muhammad and won’t be harmed. If they don’t, they will be considered combatants and put to “the sword.”

Forcible conversion is also ruthlessly applied in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram. That extremist group will storm a Christian area and systematically go from home to home demanding that every man convert to Islam. On the spot, they kill those who refuse. Habila Adamu was the sole male survivor of such an attack in 2012 in the country’s northwestern Borno State. He told me that Boko Haram extremists shot him in the head and left him for dead when he refused to renounce his Christianity. The next morning, his wife took him to the hospital, where he was treated—and acquired the x-rays of his shattered face that confirm his story.

I interviewed Deborah Peter, also from Borno, whose father and brother were shot to death in front of her in the family’s living room, on December 22, 2011. In answer to the extremists when they demanded acceptance of Islam, her father, a Christian pastor, began chanting “Jesus.” The month before, Deborah said, her father’s church had been burned down and the other pastors in the area had fled after receiving threats. The Christian pastor who gave her money to flee from the village was himself gunned down in April 2013.

Boko Haram has killed many, including Muslims whom it perceives as resisting its strict version of sharia. But Christians are an especially endangered species, and they are killed for religious, not political, reasons. In one video rant, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau says: “You Christians should know that Jesus is not the son of God. This religion of Christianity you’re practicing is not the religion of God. It’s paganism. We are trying to coerce you to embrace Islam because that is what God instructed us to do.”

In a new development, thousands of Christians in Iraq and Syria are estimated to have been kidnapped for ransom over the last decade. This pattern has been cited as responsible for driving many Iraqi and Syrian Christians from their homes, though typically only the highest-profile cases make the international news.

For example, over a year ago in Syria, two Orthodox bishops, Metropolitans Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi, were taken captive. Their fate remains unknown. An entire convent of Orthodox nuns from the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula was taken hostage by extremists for three months until, according to unconfirmed reports, a ransom was paid.

In Mosul, Iraq, Paulos Faraj Rahho, a charismatic Chaldean Catholic archbishop, was abducted by extremists while he finished the Lenten Stations of the Cross at the Church of the Holy Spirit in 2008. The sixty-five-year-old prelate was found dead two weeks later in a shallow grave, his body marked by signs of torture. In 2006, Father Paulos Iskander, a prominent Syriac Orthodox priest, was kidnapped for ransom and three days later beheaded and dismembered. His captors left a message linking the murder to a papal speech critical of Islam.

There is also the issue of abduction of Christian women for forcible conversion and “marriage” to Muslims. Untold numbers have been victimized this way in Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere, and the practice appears to be on the rise. On September 12th, the US State Department reported that, over the last two months, jihadists in Iraq abducted between fifteen hundred and four thousand Christian, as well as Yazidi, women and girls, taking them as “brides” or selling and trafficking them as sex slaves. One young woman told an Italian reporter she managed to contact by cell phone that she hoped the house where she was being held captive, in a village south of Mosul, would be bombed so that she would die rather than live in her current circumstances as a sex slave for Islamic State terrorists. Usually there is no penalty for the abductor and the women are never freed.

World headlines resulted from the April 2014 mass kidnapping of 276 girls in Chibok, Nigeria, eight-five percent of whom were Christian, according to the Nigerian government, and, according to a Boko Haram video, forcibly converted to Islam and designated for enslavement or marriage, or both, to Muslims. What is notable is only the scale of this incident—individual abductions occur regularly in northern Nigeria with the rise of extremism.

A clear symbol of the Muslim extremists’ hostility against Christians is the deliberate destruction of its houses of worship, sometimes while they are filled with worshippers.

This crime first attracted world attention in Iraq, in August 2004, with the coordinated bombings of several Baghdad churches by extremists. From then until the Islamic State was established in June 2014, more than seventy Iraqi Christian churches were destroyed by such groups. The most catastrophic was the suicide attack on Baghdad’s Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church during a Sunday Mass in October 2010, when virtually everyone inside was killed or wounded. Since June, the Islamic State has desecrated or closed and repurposed every church in Mosul, along with the monasteries, destroyed innumerable ancient Christian manuscripts, and blown up the tomb of the Prophet Jonah—all in an attempt to eradicate the Christian presence.

In Syria, Kessab’s and Maaloula’s ancient churches and many others have been targeted for desecration. A third of Syria’s churches are estimated to have been damaged during the last three years of civil war, many deliberately.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has deliberately destroyed more than a hundred churches, and four mosques, in the past two years, according to a statement in the spring by Representative Chris Smith, chair of the US House subcommittee on human rights. In 2011, near the capital of Abuja, the group attacked St. Theresa Catholic Church on Christmas, killing thirty-five congregants. In 2012, the group bombed churches during services on Easter and on consecutive Sundays.

In the last two weeks of May and early June alone, thirty-six churches were reported destroyed by Boko Haram in districts of Borno State that the Christian Association of Nigeria estimates to be eighty percent Christian. “Two hundred more churches were torched in the prior two months alone,” reported the Catholic bishop in Borno State in October 2014.

Meanwhile, Egypt saw scores of its Christian churches, like Delga’s fifteen-hundred-year-old Church of the Virgin Mary, destroyed over a three-day period in August 2013, when Muslim mobs scapegoated Copts for the military’s overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government. As my Egyptian colleague Samuel Tadros has noted, it was the largest single attack on the Coptic Church in seven hundred years.

Coptic churches have been targeted individually by fanatical mobs throughout the last decade. In spring 2013, St. Mark’s, the cathedral of the Coptic pope, was assaulted during a funeral service by an inflamed Muslim mob. It was to protest these church burnings that Copts marched in October 2011, in what became known as the Maspero massacre, when security forces ran tanks over some two dozen of the peaceful Christian protesters.

One Sunday in September 2013, Pakistani Christians experienced their first large-scale church attack. Suicide bombers attacked the Anglican All Saints Church in Peshawar, killing some eighty worshippers. In March 2013, a Muslim pogrom, incited by a blasphemy rumor, rampaged through Joseph Colony, a Christian neighborhood of Lahore, burning two churches and more than a hundred houses.

Of course, other identifiably Christian institutions, such as schools, convents, and Bible centers, have also been targeted. In May, in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, the Sudanese air force deliberately bombed Mother of Mercy hospital, founded by Catholic Bishop Macram Gassis. Shortly afterwards, the government in Khartoum announced it would ban the building of new churches in Sudan.

Anti-blasphemy laws are another means by which the most extreme voices in Muslim societies target religious minorities. Christians, along with moderate Muslims, especially the Ahmadis, and members of religious minorities, are often prime victims of blasphemy charges.

In Pakistan, this form of persecution is employed by the state, as well as by extremists within the society. Pakistan has some of the world’s harshest blasphemy codes. Amnesty International observed that minorities are disproportionately charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which can carry penalties of death or life imprisonment. A Christian man, Sawan Masih, was recently sentenced to death, and Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, remains on death row for blasphemy after being arrested in 2009. It was their calls for Bibi’s release that cost Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, and Punjab Governor Salman Taseer their lives—both of them murdered by fanatics in 2011. Muslim human rights activists, judges, and lawyers who help those accused of blasphemy also put their lives at risk, as was seen in May of this year, when Rashid Rehman, a blasphemy defense lawyer with Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, was murdered, the fourth commission activist to be cut down in recent years.

While Pakistan’s government points out that the state has never carried out an execution for blasphemy, some Christian defendants have been murdered while in custody or upon acquittal. Accusations of blasphemy have also grown in the last decade: according to a recent report by the Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad think tank, in 2011 there were eighty legal complaints, compared to only one case in 2001.

The targeting of religious minorities, repeatedly and with impunity, for assassination, forcible conversion to Islam, abduction, church destruction, and blasphemy punishments is a growth industry among radical Muslim movements worldwide, particularly in the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia. Yet the West, perhaps wary of becoming involved in a “clash of cultures,” has been slow to respond to, or even recognize, the religious cleansing these types of persecution inevitably lead to.

Various policies could be adopted by Western governments to respond to this human rights crisis. The recent “Pledge of Solidarity” put forth by American Christian leaders makes three broad recommendations. The first calls for a new diplomatic post, a US special envoy on Middle Eastern and South Asian religious minorities, which would require the appointment of a prominent figure who has the ear of the president to ensure, among other things, that the concerns of religious minorities, especially their equal rights as citizens, are considered in any eventual peace arrangement in Iraq and Syria. A bill for such a post passed Congress in July 2014 and is now sitting on the president’s desk.

The pledge also focuses on the issue of American humanitarian, resettlement, and reconstruction aid, emphasizing that such assistance must actually reach religious minorities and not be diverted by majority groups charged with its disbursement, as happened over the past decade in Iraq.

Finally, it includes a recommendation for a sweeping internal review of foreign aid in light of the situation confronted by defenseless religious minorities and the need for explicit policies to bolster religious freedom and tolerance within the Muslim world through legal and constitutional reform.

These priorities are slowly—too slowly, given the intensity of the violence that has been unleashed against Christians in the Middle East and elsewhere—working their way into US government pronouncements. Following his March 27, 2014, meeting with Pope Francis, for instance, President Obama reaffirmed that “it is central to US foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.”

But in Iraq, where the president has reauthorized the use of American military power to, among other things, “prevent a potential act of genocide” based on religion, there is still no broader US strategy to protect non-Muslims once the present crisis subsides. The vast majority of the two hundred to three hundred thousand Christians remaining in Iraq are now displaced for the foreseeable future. None of the president’s policy responses to the religious cleansing of the Islamic State has been calculated to help the survivors to resettle within the Shiite or Kurdish areas of their country now that they are barred from returning to their own homelands; and none has been aimed at helping Christians escape annihilation of their communities.

“Crime against humanity” is not an accusation the US government should deploy lightly. But it should know it when it sees it. And what is taking place now in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia is a tragic eyeful.