While HM Government faffs around arguing over whether we should be calling the Islamic State ‘ISIS’, ‘ISIL’ or ‘Daesh’ because, according to David Cameron, the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state, the Christians of Iraq are being systematically cleansed from a land they have inhabited since Thomas the Apostle and Thaddeus of Edessa first brought the gospel to Mesopotamia in the first century AD.
There is a long but very informative piece in The New York Times Magazine – Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East? – which surveys the scene of the Islamist eradication of Christianity, with heart-rending stories from Qaraqosh and Mosul of torture, rape and summary beheadings of those who bear the mark of the ‘Nasrani’. The Islamic State may be ‘self-styled’ to David Cameron, or ‘so called’ for the BBC, but the Caliphate now stretches from Turkey’s border with Syria to south of Fallujah in Iraq. It walks like a state, and talks like a state..
What we don’t hear much about is the local fight-back. There are, apparently, Assyrian Christian militia units determined to defend their lives, property and (first and foremost) the expression of their faith against the murderous death cult which threatens their existence. We didn’t arm the Kurdish peshmerga, so they were forced to retreat as the Islamists advanced. ‘‘We didn’t have the weapons to stop them,’’ says Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the peshmerga. “..the Kurds had not allowed the people of the Nineveh Plain to arm themselves and had rounded up their weapons months earlier. Tens of thousands jammed into cars and fled along the narrow highway leading to the relative safety of Erbil, the Kurdish capital of Northern Iraq, 50 miles away.”
As ISIS (or whatever you want to call them) terrorise, murder, loot and destroy, they give the Christians a choice: “They could either convert or pay the jizya, the head tax levied against all ‘‘People of the Book’: Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews. If they refused, they would be killed, raped or enslaved, their wealth taken as spoils of war.” There are stories of those who choose to stay being whipped for refusing to convert to Islam, so the choice isn’t really a choice at all: it’s stay in fear and perpetual oppression, or depart for exile and hardship.The ‘cleansing’ has been brutal; the statistics are stark:
From 1910 to 2010, the number of Christians in the Middle East — in countries like Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Jordan — continued to decline; once 14 percent of the population, Christians now make up roughly 4 percent. (In Iran and Turkey, they’re all but gone.) In Lebanon, the only country in the region where Christians hold significant political power, their numbers have shrunk over the past century, to 34 percent from 78 percent of the population. Low birthrates have contributed to this decline, as well as hostile political environments and economic crisis. Fear is also a driver. The rise of extremist groups, as well as the perception that their communities are vanishing, causes people to leave.
..‘‘Since 2003, we’ve lost priests, bishops and more than 60 churches were bombed,’’ Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, said. With the fall of Saddam Hussein, Christians began to leave Iraq in large numbers, and the population shrank to less than 500,000 today from as many as 1.5 million in 2003.
It is a curious thing that as the ‘Christian West’ has helped to rid the world of “the biggest threats to world peace” – Saddam in Iraq, Mubarak in Egypt, Gaddafi in Libya – thousands upon thousands of Christians have been displaced, crucified or slaughtered; the rivers and seas have turned red with the blood of martyrs. And in Syria?
Since the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Assad has allowed Christians to leave the country. Nearly a third of Syria’s Christians, about 600,000, have found themselves with no choice but to flee the country, driven out by extremist groups like the Nusra Front and now ISIS. ‘‘As president, he made the sheep and the wolf walk together,’’ Bassam said. ‘‘We don’t care if he stays or goes, we just want security.’’ Assad has used the rise of ISIS to solidify his own support among those who remain, sowing the same fear among them that he tries to spread in the West: that he is the only thing standing in the way of an ISIS takeover. This argument has been largely effective. As Samy Gemayel, leader of the Kataeb party in Lebanon, said: ‘‘When Christians saw Christians being beheaded, those who saw Assad as the enemy chose the lesser of two evils. Assad was the diet version of ISIS.’’
We can look at photographs of weeping widows and orphans, and we can watch TV footage of bombed-out churches, make-shift coffins and blood-spattered walls. But we can’t smell a land that reeks of decaying corpses, or feel the pain of those who are living through this great tribulation. Church of England Bishops call for asylum to be granted to their suffering Christian brothers and sisters, but the Government dare not be seen to discriminate against suffering Sunni Muslims, Yazidis, Shia Turkmen, Shabak, Kaka’i or the Mandeans, so it does nothing. Actually, not quite nothing: “..more than 100 British military experts have been training local forces in combat techniques, as well as showing them how to deal with car bombs.”
It is nowhere near enough.
While the UN Security Council meets and debates what to do, the overwhelming perception is that of paralysis and inaction. Humanitarian aid is welcome, but there will be no end to its need unless and until the Islamic State has been degraded and wiped off the face of the earth. ‘‘Americans and the West were telling us they came to bring democracy, freedom and prosperity,’’ wrote Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon who addressed the Security Council. ‘‘What we are living is anarchy, war, death and the plight of three million refugees.’’
It has been nearly impossible for two U.S. presidents — Bush, a conservative evangelical; and Obama, a progressive liberal — to address the plight of Christians explicitly for fear of appearing to play into the crusader and ‘‘clash of civilizations’’ narratives the West is accused of embracing. In 2007, when Al Qaeda was kidnapping and killing priests in Mosul, Nina Shea, who was then a U.S. commissioner for religious freedom, says she approached the secretary of state at the time, Condoleezza Rice, who told her the United States didn’t intervene in ‘‘sectarian’’ issues.
..More recently, the White House has been criticized for eschewing the term ‘‘Christian’’ altogether. The issue of Christian persecution is politically charged; the Christian right has long used the idea that Christianity is imperiled to rally its base. When ISIS massacred Egyptian Copts in Libya this winter, the State Department came under fire for referring to the victims merely as ‘‘Egyptian citizens.’’ Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, says, ‘‘When ISIS is no longer said to have religious motivations nor the minorities it attacks to have religious identities, the Obama administration’s caution about religion becomes excessive.’’
Frankly, all this is as trivial as whether we call the Islamic State ‘ISIS’, ‘ISIL’ or ‘Daesh’. If you were a Christian in Qaraqosh and Mosul, you either flee for the plains of Nineveh or stay and fight for your life. We can weep with them and pray for them; we can send money or write letters of support. But if HM Government will not grant Iraqi Christians asylum, the least it could do is help to arm the anti-ISIS Christian militia. Yes, it will stoke civil war and stir sectarian strife, but the hope of defeating, humiliating and eradicating ISIS is the only hope for a more secure and stable world.
The Nineveh Plain Forces, a 500-member Assyrian Christian militia, patrols the town. The N.P.F. is one of five Assyrian militias formed during the past year after the rout of ISIS. It shares a double aim with two other militias, Dwekh Nawsha, an all-volunteer force of around 100, and the Nineveh Plains Protection Units, a battalion of more than 300: to help liberate Christian lands from ISIS and to protect their people, possibly as part of a nascent national guard, when they return home. The two other militias are the Syriac Military Council, which is fighting alongside the Kurds in northeastern Syria, and the Babylonian Brigades, which operate under Iraq’s Shia-dominated militias.
A few of these militias are aided by a handful of American, Canadian and British citizens, who, frustrated with their governments’ lack of response to ISIS, have traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight on their own. Some come in the name of fellow Christians..
..In Iraq, the militias operate at the front only with the approval of the Kurdish peshmerga, who are using the fight against ISIS to expand their territory into the Nineveh Plain, long a disputed territory between Arabs and Kurds. Even to travel 1,000 yards between bases and forward posts, the Christian militias must ask the Kurds for permission. The Kurds are looking to integrate all the Christian militias into their force..
War is always tragedy, but a just war is the lesser evil. To stay is to die, and exile is death. Unless we are content to watch the systematic massacre of Iraq’s Christians and the eradication of Christianity from the Middle East, we must arm the anti-ISIS Christian militia. If we fail to do so, it won’t only be a porcelain statue of Jesus that’s missing its face.