For nearly six months, the eyes of the world have been focused on the most bloodthirsty and openly barbaric group of Islamist radicals ever to bludgeon its way across the Middle East in modern history.
The “Islamic State” – aka ISIS or ISIL – a cult-like, burgeoning coalition of Sunni radicals led by a self-declared “caliph,” has horrified observers with their savage tactics and the bloodstained trail of rape, abduction, sex-trading, mutilation, beheading and even crucifixion they leave behind.
Since June 2014, ISIS has been especially notorious for its wanton expulsion of Christians from Iraq’s war-torn countryside. Yazidis, Kurds and Shiite Muslims have not been spared either.
The Islamic State’s battalions of thugs have forced “infidel” families from their homes, seizing all their material possessions as they drove them out. They have murdered and even beheaded resisters; raped women and children, and kidnapped young girls for sexual exploitation. They have also proudly publicized their acts on social media – apparently for the sole purpose of terrifying all who stand against them.
And it isn’t as if they’re chasing newcomers out of their Middle Eastern neighborhood. Christians were in Iraq long before Mohammad was born.
Iraq’s Christian community is hardly a western innovation or a colonial relic. It dates from the 1st Century, when two of Jesus’ disciples – St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus (also known as St. Jude) – preached the Gospel in what was then Assyria. There has been a Christian presence in Iraq ever since.
The heartland of their community has always been in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. There, in recent years, the Christian population has swelled, as refugees from Basra and Baghdad have sought protection. And now, with ISIS sweeping through Iraq, an estimated 150,000 have had to flee Mosul and their ancient Christian heartland, some for the second time in a decade.
Nina Shea, Director of the Center for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute has traced the tragedy of Iraq’s persecuted Christians for more than a decade. She writes, “The wave of persecution that has been directed at Iraq’s Christians after 2003 has never received much attention by either President Bush or President Obama’s administrations, but it has been a grave human-rights problem.
“The campaign against Christians has encompassed 70 deliberate church bombings and assaults, as well as assassinations, an epidemic of kidnappings, and other attacks against clergy and laity alike. In recent years, particularly since 2004, a million of Iraq’s Christians have been driven out of the country by such atrocities. This can be rightly called targeted religious cleansing, and it is a crime against humanity.”
And that was before ISIS.
Today, as ISIS’s armed and masked marauders enter a Christian community, the residents are given three options: Convert. Submit to Islam. Or face the sword.
This age-old Islamist strategy of conquest is then acted out – archaic but effective in enriching the invaders and stripping the conquered of all but their clothing.
ISIS’s so-called Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has carefully schooled his troops to plunder every possession of the ‘unbelievers.’ The invaders routinely confiscate cellphones, passports, deeds of property, automobiles, jewelry, and of course cash. The elderly and infirm are at times forced to relinquish even their wheelchairs. Some have had to be carried for miles in the arms of their sons or grandsons.
Houses are marked with symbols and signs, declaring that they once belonged to Christians, but are were now the property of the Islamic State.
A middle aged Christian women from Mosul told Deutsche Welle [DW], “One man from the Islamic State said, ‘you don’t want to live with us, we’re Muslims.’ … He wanted us to pay Jizya (a religious tax) and to change our religion,’ she continued.
“’These are impossible conditions, I told him.
“’He yelled at us to leave and threatened to kidnap us. They took all our money – they didn’t even leave the small bills. We really have nothing left.’
Now in Erbil, with her husband and two children, she told DW they would never return to Mosul.
“Mosul will never be the same,” she said. “Every Christian in Iraq is trying to get out of the country. The only possibility is to go somewhere else and build up something new. This is not about the future of adults, but about the future of our children.’”
So it was that ISIS swept through Mosul and Iraq’s Nineveh plain, with surviving Christians finding themselves homeless, hoping against hope they could make their way to Irbil, Kurdistan. There, they had heard, they would find shelter.
Kurdistan is an autonomous region of Iraq that has its own government (KRG – Kurdistan Regional Government) and practices exemplary tolerance for Christians.
Kurdistan also has its own military force – a highly acclaimed group of warriors called the Peshmerga. It was widely reported that ISIS fighters stopped short when they reached the borders of the KRG.
And eventually, a ragtag parade of about 150,000 survivors of massacre, rape and plunder finally made it to Irbil. Today, along with countless other refugees, they are living in limbo – trying to heal their bodies and souls while waiting to learn their fate.
Photos of Irbil’s Christian refugees are gradually beginning to appear on social media and in news reports: weary mothers, shyly smiling children, grim fathers, and elders whose eyes reflect unfathomable loss and grief. And babies – wrapped in colorful rags, learning to crawl – looking back at the camera, wide-eyed and innocent.
When the refugees speak to visitors, some still express their continuing fear of the ISIS invaders. Are they really safe in this Kurdish enclave? And what about this sea of tents, stretching across acres and acres of dirt – soon to be mud when the rains begin. How will they survive the winter?
Questions about the future remain unanswered. Will ISIS ever be dislodged from the cities, towns and villages they conquered? If so, do these weary families really want return to their ravaged and defiled homes?
If not, where will they go? Will the nations of the world welcome them, permitting them to begin new lives? If so, where?
And how in the name of heaven will they find the strength to start their lives over?
One image of a colorless tent city appeared a few weeks ago – each identical tent bearing a number. Almost hidden in the midst of the photograph was a glimmer of light and hope. On tent number 68, someone had boldly written in English, “Jesus is the Light of the World!”
Will the faith of the Christian refugees carry them through this agonizing time of waiting and wondering?
Despair hangs in the air, and no one is immune.
Daoud Matti Sharaf, Metropolitan of the Syriac Orthodox Church (from Mosul) spoke to a Christian visitor, Chris Seiple, President of The Institute for Global Engagement.
“Winter is coming,” Sharaf said. “We need shelter. Not tents but houses and ‘caravans’ [winterized ‘tents’ with flooring]. We have no hope. Only God. We will not return to Mosul unless there is international protection. [People in the West] say they do not know. How can you not know? You either support ISIS or you have turned off all of the satellites. I am sorry to say this but my pain is big. I am an Archbishop and I have no churches. I am not afraid of anything. I have lost everything.”
Seiple, who was on a fact-finding mission to discern how best to “rescue, restore and return persecuted refugees,” also spoke to Kuristan’s Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir, who frames the situation another way:
“We are the frontline against ISIS fighting with old Soviet weapons against captured American weapons. Winter is coming: Shelter is our #1 priority. And the people are suffering from trauma, having seen things that no one should see: beheadings, murders, and women sold in the open market. We have taken in 1.5 million people and winter is coming.”
Today another stream of Christians is making its way to Kurdistan. These are not needy refugees – these are men and women like Seiple, offering hands of help: Aid workers, journalists, directors of non-profit charitable groups, and clergy from abroad.
As they visit the refugee camps and meet with the KRG’s over-stretched and under-funded government leadership, they are trying to get a handle on what is most necessary for the health and even the survival of Kurdistan’s fragile guests.
These officials know they have their hands full in more ways than one.
KRG’s Minister of Interior, Karim Sinjari, explained to Seiple, “Our need is fivefold: 1) security; 2) water; 3) food; 4) medicine; and, most of all, because winter is coming, 5) shelter.
“We want to be a place where everyone with problems can come. We want to continue being an example of tolerance for the entire region. Help us keep that example. We are not going to stop. We want Salam for everyone. We will be a place of tolerance, freedom and forgiveness. We don’t want the Christians to leave. We want them to stay: they’ve been here since the roots of the country and we encourage them to stay.”
Meanwhile, the threats from ISIS continue. German media reports that some Christian villages are trying to scrape together enough weapons to protect themselves if ISIS threatens them again. Young Christian men are pleading for training and assistance from the Peshmerga.
Deutsche Welle reports, “There are around 100 fighters with the Assyrian Democratic Movement, and around 2,000 volunteers ready to fight, as well as forces aligned to different Christian parties…. Arms are bought privately or come from the Assyrian Democratic Movement and their supporters….”
It is clear that Iraq is splintering along ethnic and religious lines.
Washington Post writer Abigail Hauslohner relates a poignant reminder of Iraq’s loss of diversity. She writes about Bataween, a Baghdad neighborhood. Today it is populated by poor Shiites and Sunnis, but it was once a Jewish enclave.
“Most Jews left Iraq after the creation of Israel in 1948,” Houslohner explains. “These days, most Iraqi men and women have never met a Jew. Jews are mostly associated with Israel, a country that Arabs are taught to hate.”
Her words call to mind the oft-quoted slogan of the jihadis, “On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians.” Iraq was once home to 135,000 Jews. Today less than ten remain in the entire country. Soon the Christian community will be gone as well.
Houslohner concludes, “It is possible that the Sunnis who remain in Mosul, Tal Afar and other towns across northern Iraq will someday tell visitors of the Yazidis and Shabak who graced their alleys, or of the Christians whose church performances once inspired Iraqi theater? Or perhaps they’ll say: “That’s where the Shiites used to live.”
The past is instructive; the future remains unclear. Most of what we read and hear is speculation about various national intentions, political posturing and empty promises to “defeat and destroy” ISIS without any lucid strategy.
Only one thing is entirely clear: ISIS’s insatiable desire for conquest.
The Jerusalem Post reported on October 14 that the latest issue of the “Islamic State’s” English-language magazine Dabiq features the Vatican on its front cover.
Fluttering in the Italian breeze, atop the Egyptian obelisk at St. Peter’s Square, is ISIS’s notorious black flag with its characteristic white Arabic lettering.
“The lengthy article,” the Post clarifies, “calls on aspiring jihadists to target the Catholic Church and followers of the Christian faith. The Islamist organization claims it will one day conquer Rome, threatening to “break [the] crosses” of infidels and sell and trade their women.
Would-be jihadist fighters and Dabiq‘s growing reader base are encouraged to go after every possible Crusader, their term for Westerners who oppose their advance.”
There are those who mock the fact that ISIS has a global agenda. Truthfully, who (apart from Israelis) takes seriously the never-ending threats – in Arabic – to Jews and Crusaders?
The reality is that ISIS’s ambition mirrors precisely the objectives and aspirations of the Muslim Brotherhood and countless other terrorist organizations rooted in Sunni extremism and Wahabist ideology. These radical groups have much in common. And their fanatical dream of conquering the West unites them under their black banners.
One has to ask: why is it that today’s computerized, cyber-linked, uber-sophisticated Western world seems so remarkably ill-equipped to cope with the barbarians at the gate?
This article originally appeared in the November issue #99 of The Jerusalem Post (Christian Edition).