Exactly one year ago tomorrow, Islamic extremists calling themselves ISIS (/ISIL/Islamic State) seized control of Mosul and its surrounding provinces following the rapid capitulation of the Iraqi military. In the face of imminent danger to their lives, 500,000 people fled the city, including almost the entire Christian population. It was the moment when the world fully woke up to the menace of Islamic State’s ambition.
Now, a year on, three million Iraqis are homeless and eight million are in urgent need of aid. The violence has had a disastrous impact on every ethnic and religious group, including Christians, Yazidis and Muslims. But proportionately, religious minorities have been hit the hardest by far. The Christian population in Northern Iraq is now extinct, having been widespread in the region for the best part of 2,000 years. Over 250,000 deserted the plains of Nineveh knowing that to remain would lead to a horrific death at the hands of ISIS.
Secretly filmed footage released by the BBC last night shows houses in Mosul marked with ‘Property of the Islamic State N’ – N being for Nasrani. These homes singled out as belonging to Christians have been confiscated and ransacked. They will most likely never be returned to their rightful owners.
“With the world’s attention focused on the militants and the response against them, we are at risk of forgetting the families who have lost everything they have in this crisis,” says Kathleen Rutledge, Tearfund’s Middle East Response Director, in a press release to mark the anniversary of Mosul’s conquest.
“People who fled atrocities last summer are still stuck in a state of limbo, living in tents and unfinished buildings, desperately hoping for news of loved ones held captive. They’ve had to flee executions, sex slave markets and forced religious conversion. Many of them are educated people who had jobs and a decent standard of living, but now they have no way of providing for themselves and are forced to depend on outside support like ours.”
Khalil from Sinjar, now living in the Kurdish region of Iraq, has told Tearfund: “I studied accounting and was working with an oil company before. My brother and I built our own house. We were working for many years to build one house. ISIS came and destroyed it in one minute. I cried when we left our home. We spend our days just sitting, not working. We have no income and cannot make plans for the future. The situation in Iraq is a bad one. I lost relatives and still don’t know what happened to them.”
The plight of the millions of Iraqis now living as refugees may have slipped from the headlines, but their need is just as great as ever. Prayer is always the place to start, but financial support is urgently needed too.
The UN has reported that humanitarian efforts are currently critically underfunded, so in response Tearfund is launching an emergency appeal to provide basic assistance to thousands of families in need. It is a very practical way to ensure enough food and shelter for all those who are living with very little hope for what lies ahead.
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali wrote last week in the Spectator of his visit to a Kurdish refugee camp at the invitation of the Chaldean Catholic Church. When you have nothing, every small thing becomes precious, and despite all the struggles he saw, he was greatly encouraged by the courage fuelled by the faith of the refugees. He remarked:
They are living ‘on the very edge’ of survival in tents, converted containers, old schools and unfinished buildings. Apart from material needs, there are huge social needs such as unemployment, a lack of educational facilities, overcrowding in the camps and shortages of electricity and water, leading to public health issues.
Such sad experiences and such difficult conditions cannot, however, be the last word about these people. I have visited many refugees, in different parts of the world, and I can honestly say that I have rarely found such a high morale anywhere else. In many cases, this is explicitly linked to people’s faith. Again and again, we heard that their faith was all they had left but that it was vital as they sought to resurface from the vicissitudes that have overtaken them with ‘heads bloodied but unbowed’. For them the question is not why evil exists but how they have been saved from it.
The churches (Chaldean, Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox and Assyrian) seem to have worked together very well. The camps, run by the churches, are well organised and clean. There are clear rules about what is socially unacceptable and the pastors of the different churches seem to have important roles in organising and directing the life of the camps. Every camp has facilities for worship, education and medical care, showing clearly Christianity’s abiding concern for these areas of human life and of society.
Not that the camps are limited to Christians; the churches have also helped Yazidis, Shabak and Kakoyeiah people on an equal basis. As a Yazidi leader, in one of the camps, said to me, ‘our religion hasn’t got the structures to help us in this situation. The churches have and we are grateful for all their help.’
In the face of persecution, hope is still able to triumph. The scourge of ISIS has drawn the oppressed minorities together and allowed relationships and understanding to grow and develop. When Saul of Tarsus pounded the fledgling Christians, it was as if a fire had been beaten causing sparks to fly out and start more fires beyond it. What we are seeing once again is that the persecuted and dispersed Church is spreading God’ s love and message to new people in new places. And as with Saul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus, God is using the oppression of His people to turn their enemies towards Him.
There was a story told a few days ago by Youth With A Mission, of one of its workers who met a former member of ISIS who was given a Bible by a Christian about to be killed. He went away and read it, and following a dream in which he met Jesus, he chose to convert. There is also growing evidence that, faced with the atrocities of ISIS, record numbers of Muslims are turning their backs on their religion and becoming Christians despite the rejection they expect to face as apostates.
Even in the despair of Iraq’s turmoil, hope is alive. Those of us Christians living in comfort in the West must not forget our brothers and sisters in Christ, and ask that God blesses those who are fighting to remove ISIS from their positions of power; and that He might turn to good what the enemy has meant only for evil.