Christians in Iraq 'facing extinction' at Islamists' hands
WASHINGTON (BP) -- Islamic militants have eradicated virtually every trace of Christianity from Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom, said July 23.
"There are no Christians left in Mosul," Shea told CBN News. "They have all been driven out. They have been told to convert to Islam or die, or to leave."
Mosul has been the center of Iraq's Christian community for two millennia, but it is also a site with a significant place in biblical history. Ancient Mesopotamia was the location of both the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, as well as the ancestral homeland of Abraham. The city of Mosul is located on the site of the ancient city of Nineveh, the capital of the brutal Assyrian empire and the location of Jonah's preaching in the biblical account. Nineveh, according to the Bible, was established by Noah's grandson Nimrod.
Mosul became a familiar location to Southern Baptists in 2004 when four Christian aid workers, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, were ambushed there. Larry and Jean Elliot, David McDonnall and Karen Watson died in the attack. Only Carrie McDonnall, David's wife, survived, though she was seriously wounded.
Shea, who formerly served as vice chair for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said fighters with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) marked the property of Christians in Mosul with the Arabic word "Nasrani," or "Nazarene" -- a clear reference to Christianity. Christian property owners were then driven out.
Last month militants offered Christians in Mosul the opportunity to enter into a dhimma, an agreement which would have allowed them to practice the Christian faith behind closed doors after they paid a hefty tax and agreed not to proselytize. However, multiple sources in the region said that offer was later withdrawn and all Christians were told to leave or face execution.
Members of Assyrian Christian and Chaldean Catholic groups streamed out of Mosul when the final ultimatum was delivered this week by ISIS militants, Shea said, and they left empty handed. Militants confiscated all of their possessions, including homes, cars, clothes "and even their wedding rings, sometimes with the finger attached if it would not come off," she said.
Shea also said she saw reports of ISIS militants destroying or defacing ancient Christian sites, such as the supposed tomb of the prophet Jonah, fourth century monasteries and churches. She added that militants tore down crosses in the city and burned ancient Christian manuscripts.
"There is zero tolerance for the religious other on the part of this group," Shea said. "They are rabidly bigoted against Christians. They hate Christians. They are eradicating every trace of the 2,000 year history of Christianity in every area they have conquered, including in Iraq's second largest city, the center of Christianity in Iraq, which is Mosul."
David Curry, president and CEO of Open Doors USA, which offers assistance to persecuted Christians around the world and lobbies repressive governments to cease religious persecution, called the plight of Christians in Mosul and the remainder of northern Iraq "unprecedented in modern times."
"This latest forced exodus of Christians further shows why Western governments and the people in the West need to cry out in support for religious freedom in the Middle East and elsewhere," Curry said in a statement. "If this does not move us concerning the near extinction of Christianity in the Middle East, it's likely nothing else can."
Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein, nearly 1 million Christians have fled the country for safer surroundings. An estimated 500,000 Christians remained throughout the northern portion of the country chiefly among the Chaldean Catholic community, which has existed there for 1,700 years. The archbishop for the region, Shimoun Nona, told the Catholic World Report after Mosul fell to militants in June that the Christian population had dropped to 35,000 and then to only 3,000.
According to recent reports from the region, only a few hundred Christian families remained in Mosul before ISIS gave its ultimatum last week. Its stance toward Christians who remained may mean the hardened Al-Qaeda offshoot is becoming even more intolerant of dissenting faiths as it tightens control over a large swath of the plain of Nineveh, where Mosul is located.
ISIS alone is not to blame for the crisis in northern Iraq, Shea said, noting that the inaction of the Obama administration and the Iraqi government have made matters worse.
Obama "should be talking about it," Shea said. "It is important also to keep pressure on the Iraqi government, which has failed in every way. It is a narrow, sectarian government that has, as I've heard reports today, rescued Shiite minorities from the north but is leaving the Christians ... to fend for themselves. They only rescued Shiites from the wrath of this Islamic state."
Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said on the floor of the U.S. House June 22 that the Obama administration was watching the "extinction" of Christians and other religious minorities take place in northern Iraq.
"I believe what is happening to the Christian community in Iraq is genocide," Wolf said. "I also believe it is a crime against humanity."
Wolf said he and 54 other members of Congress -- Republicans and Democrats -- urged the Obama administration in a letter to engage the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government and ask them to prioritize additional security support for especially vulnerable populations in the region. Among those are Iraq's ancient Christian communities, he said. The members also asked the administration to provide humanitarian assistance to religious refugees from the area.
"I want to read the last line from our letter: 'Absent immediate action, we will most certainly witness the annihilation of an ancient faith community from the lands they've inhabited for centuries,'" Wolf said. "It is happening. They are almost all gone -- just as we predicted. The Obama administration has to make protecting this ancient community a priority."
Wolf spoke about the war on Iraqi Christians from the House floor again July 24, warning, "Christianity as we know it in Iraq is being wiped out."
"Where is the West? Where is the Obama administration? Where is the Congress? The silence is deafening," Wolf said. "The West, particularly the church, needs to speak out."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Malaki finally addressed the plight of Christians in Mosul in a statement to the Iraqi News Agency July 20. Al-Malaki, a Shiite Muslim, said the actions taken by ISIS in northern Iraq "undoubtedly reveal the criminal nature of terrorists and extremist groups, which pose danger to the humanitarian legacy and heritage through the centuries."
Al-Malaki called on the government to render humanitarian aid and to support efforts of the Kurds to care for displaced peoples from Mosul. Many Christians have found protection among Kurdish fighters, who oppose ISIS's domination of the area.
In addition to the condemnation of forced deportations of Christians from Mosul by Shea, Wolf and Curry, interfaith groups and other religious leaders have also condemned ISIS's repression of Christians.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global Jewish human rights organization, said too many people believe "forced conversions and expulsions of entire religious communities were part of a distant, medieval past."
"It is not too late to realize that many others -- Christians today, but certainly Jews, Baha'i, Hindus, Muslims and others -- are mortally endangered by a potent religious fanaticism that threatens tens of millions, and which still can be resisted," Adlerstein said in a statement.
Even prominent Sunni Muslim scholars claimed the forced deportation of Christians from their homes was not a true representation of Islamic doctrine. Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi said the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS) condemns the actions of ISIS.
Christians "are native sons of Iraq and not intruders," a statement from the group told Rueters in Doha, Qatar, July 22. "The aim must be to bury discord, unite the ranks and solve Iraq's problems, rather than thrusting it into matters that would further complicate the situation."
IUMS does not disavow the notion of an Islamic caliphate as a goal to be obtained in the future. It claims, however, that a majority of Muslims in an area have to agree to join such a caliphate. That makes the caliphate announced with force by ISIS unlawful, according to the group.
The reach of ISIS began to expand into northern Iraq after fighting spilled over into the country from Syria in the spring. Militants overtook Mosul June 10, followed by the city of Tikrit, less than 100 miles from Baghdad. They captured Tal Afar and portions of the "Sunni Triangle" in western Iraq, including Ramadi and Fallujah. ISIS also temporarily took the town of Baquba, less than 40 miles from Baghdad, June 16.
The terrorist group now controls nearly one third of Iraq and Syria, an area larger than Jordan, Lebanon and Israel combined.
Gregory Tomlin is a writer based in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).