Are We Witnessing The Last Days of the Iraqi Church?
By Todd Daniels
06/20/14 (International Christian Concern) – Just over one week ago, the conflict in Syria spilled over into Iraq in dramatic fashion. The Islamic jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Shams (ISIS), moved in and quickly took hold of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. More than any other group in the Syrian conflict, ISIS has set about to establish an Islamic state in the lands it controls. For any non-Sunnis the results have been catastrophic. It has driven the already dwindling Iraqi Christian community to seek refuge in the Kurdish controlled regions of northern Iraq.
The Sunni extremist group, an offshoot of Al Qaeda, has taken control of large swaths of land stretching from Aleppo in northwestern Syria to central and southern Iraq. Where ISIS has solidified their control, like in Raqqa, Syria, they have implemented rules for Christians that resemble the “dhimmitude” of the 7th century.
The offer of “Islam, tribute, or sword” has become common once again. Upon taking control of Mosul, ISIS published a list of rules for the city. Included in the rules were restrictions on dress and diet, the institution of capital punishment, and places of conversion for any “khafir” or unbelievers who wanted to convert to avoid the punishment facing them.
“One of their visions is to wipe out Christians completely from Mosul, either to drive them out or to kill them,” an Iraqi pastor told International Christian Concern (ICC). “If Christians would stay they must either pay ransom or declare their faith in Islam,” he continued.
In the hours immediately following the attack on Mosul, reports emerged of churches being set on fire. Pictures can be seen of fire and smoke rising from the St. Etchmiadzin Armenian church. ISIS has also looted the Church of the Holy Spirit and occupied the St. Benham monastery, according to the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA).
Fleeing to Safety or Gone for Good?
As news of the attack on Mosul came in, thousands of Christians were among the 500,000 Iraqi’s streaming out of the city. Some of them fled into the surrounding villages, but most made their way into the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, finding refuge in Erbil, Dohuk, and elsewhere.
“The exodus has been triggered, above all, by the jihadists’ reputation for bloodlust — a reputation that ISIS has consciously furthered through its own propaganda,” Christian Caryl wrote in an article at Foreign Policy. ISIS has committed mass executions, mostly of Shi’a police and military officers. ISIS has showed evidence of loading hundreds of Shi’a Muslims into trucks to be driven outside the city and summarily executed. The Christian community fears that they also risk the same fate if they are found out.
Speaking to ICC, a pastor in Northern Iraq shared that the entire congregation of a sister church in Mosul has now moved into their city. Upwards of a dozen families from one church community are now staying in homes, in the churches, or wherever they can find shelter. Housing prices have already increased by more than 50 percent as demand is skyrocketing.
The lingering question for many, even in the Iraqi community, is if Christians will ever go back. Just more than a decade ago, there were nearly 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. For the past 2,000 years the Iraqi church has been the homeland of a variety of Eastern Christian denominations. The violence of the past decade and the persecution that Christians and religious minorities are suffering has nearly destroyed that community entirely.
With the latest wave of violence, the worst fears of international observers were realized. The ongoing instability and random violence is now augmented by a well-armed and well-funded extremist group explicitly set on establishing an Islamic state in the homeland of Iraq’s Christian community. “In other words, the religious cleansing of Christians from Iraq is entering the end game,” Nina Shea wrote in the days following the fall of Mosul.
The few hundred thousand Christians who are left in Iraq have showed incredible resilience in staying to the end. The church is determined to persevere, yet they hope that their suffering is not going unnoticed. They are crying out for the outside world to stand with them.
Patriarch Louis Sako expressed the feelings of many when he said: “We feel forgotten and isolated. We sometimes wonder, if they kill us all, what would be the reaction of Christians in the West? Would they do something then?”
These words were recounted in a Pledge of Solidarity and a Call to Action on behalf Middle Eastern Christians and religious minorities that nearly 300 religious leaders signed on May 7, 2014.
With this latest wave attacks, the time to demonstrate that solidarity is now. The Iraqi church must see that they are not forgotten and that the Christian community around the world will do something.
ICC has launched a campaign to provide aid to the Iraqi church to assist those in need who have fled from the attacks. Go here to find out more and donate: Iraqi Crisis Response
For interviews, contact Todd Daniels, Regional Manager for the Middle East: RM-ME@persecution.org
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