Christians on the Run From Iraq

Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians
Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians

For the first time in 1,400 years, there will be no Christmas celebrations in Nineveh province, home to Iraq's largest remaining Christian community and largest non-Muslim minority, and a site of great biblical significance. This northern province, whose area is over three times larger than that of Lebanon, is now part of the Islamic State's caliphate, and its Christians and churches are no longer tolerated.

What has become of Nineveh's Christians? What will be their fate?

These should be pressing concerns for America, especially its 247 million Christians. Yet the mainstream media rarely cover this story — a New York Times reporter in a recent e-mail says it's of "limited interest," explaining that "most of our readers have only vague notions of who they are anyway and why their issues are relevant to the United States." A better explanation would be that the Times and other establishment elites are reluctant to focus on the goals, rather than just the tactics, of Islamist extremist ideology. A main goal is total Islamization — and it is on the verge of being realized in Iraq.

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Iraq's Christians, who in recent years have clustered in their ancestral Nineveh homeland to escape persecution in Baghdad and Basra, are important culturally and politically. With authentic roots in the earliest years of the faith, they constitute one of the largest remaining native Christian communities in Christianity's cradle. It was these communities that first structured the sacred liturgy, developed religious music (leading to Gregorian chant), brought to the West monasticism for men and women, and otherwise provided great treasures of Christian patrimony.

Introducing modern hospitals, schools, and literacy programs to Iraq, they are a bridge between East and West. They are also a constituency for peace in the fierce Sunni–Shia conflicts, and none of them have become suicide bombers.

Now, they are human-rights victims in an epic religious cleansing, which is a crime against not only them but all humanity. Their numbers having declined from 1.4 million to between 250,000 and 350,000 over the last decade, these remnants of Iraq's ancient church community have been facing a genocidal threat.

The Islamic State stormed unimpeded through Mosul, Qaraqosh, and the smaller towns of Nineveh province last summer, marking Christian homes with the letter "N" for "Nazarene" and giving residents an ultimatum: renounce Jesus Christ and convert to Islam, or die. The 200,000 Christian faithful in Nineveh, many of whom still pray in Aramaic, refused. For that, they had to flee en masse one August day with little more than the shirts on their backs. Some, including children, were slaughtered, and some may have been enslaved.

The survivors are now part of the lengthening roster of Iraq's "internally displaced persons" (IDPs), the antiseptic international term for those who've lost everything except the right to remain in their own country. Bypassing the U.N.-run camps in Iraqi Kurdistan (which now serve 1.5 million Muslims), most of Nineveh's Christians have sought shelter in church-run camps that are unheated and dirty. Visiting Mar Yousef (Saint Joseph) camp near Erbil last month, my Hudson colleague Lela Gilbert found plenty of despair among its residents: Faten, an English teacher, at 26 seems defeated. Like many, she has had to run from jihadists — twice, a few years ago from Baghdad and last summer from Qaraqosh. An elderly woman starts to tell her story but breaks down weeping, as does a bishop. Three months since their abrupt exile, all still seem traumatized.

Dominican prioress Sister Maria Hanna writes of the bewilderment in a November 7 e-mail: "What hurts most is the fact that there is no positive scenario or any promising sign for [a] better future. Immigration is so extensive and every day we ask: 'Until when and what is next?'''

What is certain, they won't be able to go home any time soon.

Mosul, Nineveh's capital and Iraq's second-largest city, became overwhelmingly a Sunni Muslim city in recent decades. After the jihadists arrived, hundreds of thousands of moderate Sunnis fled, joining the Christian, Yazidi, and Shia minorities. Many who stayed evidently sympathize with IS. Some are Salafis who embrace IS's sharia rule and its Wahhabi education (They are reportedly being taught from Saudi textbooks.) Some, including Saddam Hussain's former officers, share IS's hatred for Shia rule. Others have simply adapted.
Retaking Mosul, then, would not be a matter of routing a few thousand IS invaders. Some popularity for IS, reinforced by theocratic totalitarianism, suggests that the Islamic State is entrenched there. Liberating Mosul could make the battle for Kobani, now in its fourth month, look like a cakewalk.

Moreover, Mosul's Christians may have nothing to return to. They may do so only to find, like the exiled Christians of Baghdad's Dora neighborhood in 2008, others now occupying their homes. Even regaining church property could be difficult. IS zealots have set out to destroy Christian manuscripts, artifacts, churches, and every trace of Nineveh's Christian civilization. Mosul's heavy stone-walled Chaldean Immaculate Conception Church, dating from the tenth century, has been turned into a women's detention center; the seventeenth-century St. Gregory's monastery, into a prison; 30 churches have been stripped of their crosses, perhaps to become mosques, and, on November 24, the Chaldean Sisters' Sacred Heart Monastery, converted into an IS logistics center, was blown up.

Most of Nineveh's Christian IDPs lived in Qaraqosh and smaller, mostly Christian, rural villages. Their problem is purely security. These towns sit on the Nineveh Plain, a natural battlefield. Many are already ransacked and abandoned by IS. But they are the jihadist's 7-Elevens: always open — to attack, and defenseless. Some Christians are forming defense militias, but so far they number only 500 to 1,000 men. Calls for international protection seem just as hopeless — no army is signing up to protect the Nineveh towns. Army Lieutenant General James Terry, who leads the U.S. campaign in Iraq and Syria, estimates that the larger region won't be freed of IS for at least three years.

These Christian communities survived the Romans, Arabs, Mongols, Tartars, Ottomans, and Baathists by migrating within the region. Today, their options there are few, as war and war's refugees engulf Iraq's neighbors.

Tradition holds that the Apostle Thomas first brought Christianity to Nineveh. Just ahead of IS, Syriac Orthodox bishops spirited away relics of the "doubting" saint from Mar Thoma, an eighth-century Mosul church. They are now safe, in Sweden. Since 2003, with Islamist terror targeting them, a million Iraqi Christians have likewise found refuge in the West. Half of Nineveh's persecuted Christians now want to follow, reports Aid to the Church in Need. Experience shows that this immigration would be permanent.

Offering the only hope that these Christians might remain in the region until the jihadists are ousted, numerous Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox charities struggle to provide 120,000 Christian IDPs (and some Yazidi and Muslims) with basic humanitarian aid. Some are donating prefab caravans (revealingly dubbed "fridges"), winterized tents, and even apartments. Some are building schools in Ankawa, Erbil's Christian enclave, and in Amman, which has 7,000 Iraqi Christian refugees.

While IS has inflicted suffering on all religions, it is close to achieving its goal of eradicating the entire Christian presence from Iraq. President Obama, who a year ago famously underestimated the Islamic State as a "JV" team, has yet to recognize this Christian minority's unique plight and its implications for pluralism in the region. It is up to ordinary Americans of good will to help them — our prayers and charity are desperately needed.

This year, Nineveh's Christians will celebrate Christmas in Kurdistan and in neighboring countries — with their families, their distinct cultural communities, their awesome faith, and little else. They may be the last generation to offer the ancient Christmas greeting in Jesus' own Aramaic language:

Our Lord is born.
Glory be His name, and praised be His mother.

This column was orginally published in National Review.

Nina Shea is director of Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom and co-author of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson Publishers, March 2013).

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