By Robin Phillips:
Since America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Christians there have faced increasing persecution. The instabilities in the government have led to the growth of extremist Muslim groups whose attacks on Christians have been largely ignored. Most recently, a jihadist offshoot of Al Queda, known as ISIS, has been marching through Syria and Iraq, taking towns and villages, imposing Sharia law and expelling Christians.
HISTORY OF IRAQ
The land of modern-day Iraq, in the heart of the Middle East, has been home to some of the oldest and greatest civilizations the world has known. Sometimes called “the cradle of civilization” it has seen the rise and fall of Sumerian, Chaldeans, Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian and Ottoman empires.
This land has also been intertwined with the story of God’s people. In Genesis 10 we are told that the descendants of Nimrod built the great city of Nineveh (modern-day Mosul, Iraq). A few chapters later, Genesis describes how Abraham was called by God to leave Ur in the land of the Chaldeans (modern-day Tell el-Muqayyar, Iraq) and travel by faith to God’s promised land.
As the empire of the Assyrians grew in modern day Iraq, God increasingly used them in dealing with his people. At times God miraculously saved his people from the clutches of this great empire, while at other times He used them as instruments of His judgment.
God also extended His grace and salvation to the people of Nineveh through the prophet Jonah. In a remarkable conversion, 120,000 persons and much cattle were saved from God’s judgment, as they turned to the Lord in sackcloth and ashes.
GROWTH OF CHRISTIANITY
In the first-century, not long after Christ’s ascension, St Thomas and St Thaddeus brought the gospel to Mesopotamia and the Parthian and Persian empires. The church grew rapidly, leading to the founding of the Assyrian Church of the East. St Peter even mentions this Church in his first letter: “The church that is at Babylon, elected together with you, saluteth you.” (1 Peter 5: 13).
The Assyrian Church of the East continued to spread and at its height took the gospel all the way to India, China and Central Asia.
ISLAM TAKES OVER
However, in the seventh-century, the Muslim conquest took over much of the Middle East and modern-day Iraq began to be ruled by Muslim Caliphs. The current capital of Iraq, Baghdad, was founded under the Muslim Caliph Al-Mansur in 762. His intention was to make it a reflection of Paradise as described in the Qur’an.
The Ottoman Empire conquered the region in the 1500s and ruled until its dissolution after the First World War. After a short period under the British Empire, Iraq was granted independence in 1932. The country has been unstable since the 1980s, with the Iraq-Iran War under Saddam Hussein, the Gulf war in the early 1990s and constant tensions between the Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Throughout the history of Iraq, Christians have experienced persecution from the majority Muslim population. At times Christians have been subject to paying the Jizya tax imposed upon Christians by Muslim leaders. They have also experienced bouts of extreme persecution and massacres, as in the late 14th century when a Mongol warlord conquered Mesopotamia and had 70,000 Assyrian Christians beheaded in Tikrit, and 90,000 more in Baghdad. Nevertheless, there has always remained a Christian presence in the land of Iraq.
THE LEGACY OF BUSH AND BLAIR
When President Bush led the invasion into Iraq in 2003, there was much concern from various Christian communities around the world that Western intervention in Iraq would lead to greater instability and provide opportunities for much more vicious persecution of Christians by Islamic extremists. These fears have been more than realised. In 2003 it was estimated that there were around 1.5million Christians in Iraq; now the estimates are optimistically around 400,000, not taking into account the recent exodus.
In the past few years the Church in Iraq has faced unprecedented persecution at the hands of Islamic extremists, and in recent months thousands of Christians have been forced to flee by the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS.)
ISIS AND THE CALIPHATE
In May 2006 Nouri Al-Maliki was elected as Prime Minister of Iraq. Al-Maliki is now coming to the end of his second term, but his 8 years in office have provided little stability and have increasingly alienated the Sunni Muslims. Some argue that the rise of ISIS is due to the weakness of the Iraq state and the lack of unity in community and society.
ISIS troops have swept through Iraq butchering and raping Christians in the name of Jihad.
The group ISIS was formed in April 2013 amongst the Syrian rebels encouraged by Britain to the tune of £32.5m. It grew out of Al Qaeda but has since been disowned by them for being too radical, which is some feat. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the current leader of ISIS and is seen as more of a tactician and battlefield commander than a theologian. This emphasis makes the group even more attractive to young jihadists. The group is one of the wealthiest militant groups in the world with income from oil fields in Eastern Syria, and reportedly from selling looted antiquities. They are also reported to have an extremely high level of bureaucracy and tight central control of operations that are locally implemented.
Throughout 2013, ISIS conducted around 10,000 operations in Syria and Iraq and made huge advances in taking towns and cities in both countries. ISIS currently holds territory spanning 415 miles , from Al-Bab in Syria all the way to Suleiman Bek in Iraq. The borders of the countries seem to matter little, and the goal is to create a united Islamic State or “Caliphate” ruled according to Islamic law. On 29th June, the first day of the Muslim fast of Ramadan, ISIS declared the restoration of the “Caliphate” and their aim to grow the “Islamic State.”
In the towns controlled by ISIS, women are forced to wear the hijab and only go outside “if necessary.” Female Genital Mutilation is mandated. Drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are banned. Monuments, shrines and graveyards, seen as idolatrous in Sunni Islam, are to be destroyed.
The destruction of monuments and shrines has led to many ancient Christian and some rival Muslim landmarks being defaced. Ten ancient Shia mosques have been destroyed across Iraq, along with countless Christian Churches, the Shrine of Jonah in Mosul, and a fourth-century monastery in Quaraqosh.
“NOTHING BUT THE SWORD”
Having gained smaller territories throughout Syria and Iraq, ISIS attacked the town of Mosul in early June. Mosul is situated beside the ancient city of Nineveh, and has been the traditional heartland of Iraq’s Christian community. As the militant ISIS troops advanced, police advised Christian leaders to flee and thousands left the city. But this was just the beginning. Once ISIS gained control over the city of Mosul they looted and torched Churches, hung black jihadist flags and declared that they had “come to liberate the city.”
A few weeks later on 18th July, ISIS issued an ultimatum to be read in all the mosques, that all Christians must convert to Islam, pay the tax for non-Muslims or die. “We offer them three choices: Islam; the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.” The Christians were given 24 hours to convert, pay or leave.
Thousands of Iraqi Christians have fled to the Khazer refugee camp after the ISIS ultimatum.
A local news source reports that on 21st July, ISIS soldiers barged into the house of Christians in Mosul and demanded that they pay the jizya tax. When the father explained that they did not have the money to pay, the three soldiers proceeded to rape his wife and daughter in front of him. The husband and father was so distraught that he later took his own life.
In the face of such brutality, thousands more Christians fled north to Kurdistan where the Kurdish Regional Government is providing food, water and shelter. As the Christians fled they were not allowed to take anything with them. All of their money, belongings and property was seized by the ISIS soldiers. Wadie Salim, a Christian refugee from Mosul, told CNN “They told us, ‘You to leave all of your money, gold, jewellery, and go out with only the clothes on you.’”
More than 300,000 refugees have fled to Kurdish refugee camps, which are increasingly overwhelmed. There seems to be no hope of returning home in the near future. The Archbishop of Mosul Amel Nona said “We have received threats…now all the faithful have fled the city. I wonder if they will ever return there.” The Chaldean Archbishop of Kirkuk, Yousif Mirkis, says that he “quite definitely” fears the end of Christianity in Iraq.
IRAQ ‘FAILING TO TAKE RESPONSIBILITY’
There has been little response by world leaders to the crisis for Christians in Iraq. The Prime Minister of Iraq, al-Maliki, issued a statement on 19th July saying “What is being done by the Daesh (ISIS) terrorist gang against our Christian citizens in Ninevah province, and their aggression against the churches and houses of worship in the areas under their control reveals beyond any doubt the extremist criminal and terrorist nature of this group.” But there is not much evidence of action being taken by the Iraqi government to aid the thousands of refugees.
The Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, spoke against the Iraqi government, complaining that “The number of refugees is on the increase while the Iraqi government has so far failed to take responsibility and help these refugees who have sought asylum in Kurdistan.” He also called for international aid to help provide for basic needs. Christian communities themselves have been contacting the UN, the United States and international NGOs for help.
In an outspoken article in the Telegraph, Dr Tim Stanley condemned the lack of interest given by westerners to the suffering of Christians in Iraq. He observed “it would indeed be awful to think that the West might remain silent as violence rages purely out of a failure to recognise that Christians can be victimised, or out of a reluctance to cast aspersions on certain brands of Islam. It would make this the first genocide in history to be tolerated out of social awkwardness.”
ISIS continues to advance, with hopes of enlarging their “Islamic State.” They have been closing in on cities located near Baghdad, and have made small scale attacks on Baghdad. On 19th and 20th July there were 4 bombings in the city, killing at least 27 people. The main website used by ISIS claimed responsibility for these bombings.
On 17th July, Louis Raphael Sako, Patriarch of Baghdad for the Chaldean Catholic Church, wrote a letter “to all who have a living conscience in Iraq and all the world”. He explained that “in recent days there has been written the letter ‘N’ in Arabic on the front wall of Christian homes, signifying ‘Nazara’ (Christian), and on the front wall of Shiite homes, the letter ‘R’ signifying ‘Rwafidh’ (Protestants or rejecters).” He spoke of the dangers and power of sharia law, and appealed to those around the world to take notice:
“We call with all the force available to us; we call to you fraternally, in a spirit of human brotherhood; we call to you urgently; we call to you impelled by risk and in spite of the risk. We implore in particular our Iraqi brothers asking them to reconsider and reflect upon the strategy they have adopted and demanding that they must respect innocent and weaponless people of all nationalities, religions, and sects.
“We call Christians in the region to act with reason and prudence and to consider and to plan everything in the best way possible. Let them understand what is planned for this region, to practice solidarity in love, to examine the realities together and so be able together to find the paths to build trust in themselves and in their neighbours. Let them stay close to their own Church and surround it; endure the time of trial and pray until the storm will be over.”
READ: Ex 15:1-3; Psalm 10:1-18, 44:22-26, 62:1-8, 116:15; Prov 24:11-12; Lam 1:12; Matt 10:23; Luke 21:12; Rev 12:11
PRAY: That God would protect the Christians throughout Iraq from violence. That there would be a halt to the progress of ISIS and cities would be freed from their law. That there would be enough resources to take care of the hundreds of thousands of refugees and that they might be able to return home soon. That the persecution of Christians would not be ignored by the West, but that effective action would be taken by those in power to protect our brothers and sisters.
WRITE: To your MP at House of Commons, LONDON, SW1A 0AA. Ask what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to protect Christians in Iraq. Ask what they are asking the Iraqi government to do. Ask if they will be offering asylum to Iraqi Christians. Ask if they are still supporting the rebels in Syria or if they have at last decided it’s time to switch sides. Stress that it was Her Majesty’s Government who got Iraq into this mess and funded what has become ISIS in Syria.
WITNESS: Outside the Iraqi Embassy, 21, Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5JE, on Friday 22nd August from 2pm to 4pm. Nearest tube: Gloucester Road.
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