It’s a Black Christmas for the Christians of the Middle East
As 2014 draws to a close, ancient communities of faith confront the destruction of their world.
A few weeks ago I found myself at the gates of Saint Elias Church, one of many in the traditional Christian quarter of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. But there was nothing at all traditional about the scene that greeted me there. The churchyard was jammed with plastic tents in United Nations sky blue and white, tents that were now the only homes of people who have been chased from the towns and cities their families inhabited for generations until just a few months before. A few kids, who had no schools to attend, listlessly kicked a soccer ball around in the mud. Adults spent their time queuing up for aid or forlornly chasing after nonexistent jobs in the surrounding city. Amid the squalor stood a statue of the Virgin Mary, a forlorn symbol of their faith. (That’s her photo above.) All of the camp’s inhabitants are Chaldean Catholics, members of a distinct and ancient branch of the Catholic Church. It is precisely for this reason that they are now refugees.
Of course, life in Iraq hasn’t really been great for anyone since the U.S. invasion in 2003, which unleashed a sectarian conflict that has continued, in fits and starts, until the present day. But Iraq’s various Christian communities have been hit especially hard. Of the 1 million Christians who lived in Iraq at the start of the war, only about 250,000 remain in the country today. Over the past 10 years, their enemies have robbed them, kidnapped them, bombed their churches, kidnapped their priests. The once vibrant Christian community in Baghdad has been wiped out. Until recently most of those who remained were concentrated in the north, particularly in Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul.
But then came the jihadists of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and life as the Christians of northern Iraq once knew it came to an end. At St. Elias, I listened to their stories of the days in early August when Islamic State fighters stormed their churches and homes. As we sat on cots in crowded tents, shivering in the rising cold, the memories came pouring out: the first news of impending attack, the hurried departures, the separation of families, the torture and the killings meted out to those who stayed behind. Some boys led me into a grotto on the church grounds that contains a shrine with another statue of Mary, and told me that they’d recently seen her face covered with moisture: “She’s crying for us,” one of them said, holding out photos. “She sees our suffering.”
I guess you could argue that this is all old news. A lot has happened since late November, and there are plenty of other stories to cover. By and large, the international media have moved on. But the refugees are still there, huddled together on the grounds of the church, or in other sites scattered around Kurdish-controlled territory (which has offered them a warm welcome despite its own lack of resources). The world may have forgotten these people, but they’re still struggling to come to terms with the catastrophe. The accounts repeat and overlap: “I hid our money in the house, thinking we’d be back in a few days. But now we realize that we’ll probably never be able to go back.” “They knew our cellphone number, so a few days later, they called us up and said they’d hunt us down and kill us.” “They took him away, and we’ve never heard from him again.”
Mukhlis Yusef Yacoub, 37, could be considered one of the lucky ones. Thanks to a benefactor from his hometown of Qaraqosh (a predominantly Christian city just east of Mosul), he’s found a job in Erbil, selling clothes from the back of a car, which gives him just enough money to afford a closet-sized apartment for him, his wife, and their three kids. But this is small consolation for the loss of their world.
“They came on August 6,” Yacoub told me, remembering how the jihadists began their assault on Qaraqosh. Islamic State fighters detained him and his 9-year-old son, Mark; his wife and two daughters managed to flee. His captors demanded that Yacoub convert to Islam. When he refused, they beat him so viciously that he lost his sight in one eye. Yet he would not bend — so his jailers decided to go after his son. “They tied a rope around Mark’s body and legs, and then they dragged him down the street behind a car.” But still, he said, he refused to submit. After 7 days, his jailers tired of the game, and they expelled Yacoub and his son from IS-controlled territory. The two of them walked on foot for miles until they reached the safety of Kurdish territory.
Mark is small and visibly traumatized. When I asked him about their ordeal, he didn’t want to talk, sheltering anxiously under his father’s arm. And yet, prompted by his dad, he proudly pulled down his sleeve to reveal a tattoo of the Virgin Mary on his shoulder. These are tough people who have long paid a price for their faith. Their ancestors have lived in this part of Iraq for the past 2,000 years, resisting countless attempts to uproot them. Many of northern Iraq’s Christians are Assyrians, members of an ancient ethnic group who were subjected to mass slaughter by the collapsing Ottoman Empire during World War I — an event still little noted by the outside world. They’ve lived through generations of trauma that few of us can imagine.
Now, however, they may have finally had enough. Many of the refugees say they can’t imagine going home: the fact that many of their Sunni Muslim neighbors eagerly joined ranks with Islamic State terrorists means that they’ll never be safe even if the jihadists are vanquished. Others aren’t so sure. “I want to go back home today,” Namrud Elyas Hanna, 52, told me. (Like Yacoub, he’s a Chaldean Catholic.) “But we can’t. We’re so frustrated here, so hopeless. Our villages are destroyed, our homes are burnt. Living here is too hard. We can’t emigrate, we can’t go abroad.”
Sadly, the tragedy of the Christians of Iraq — who span a whole range of doctrines and ethnic groups — is being replicated in many other places. Sectarian tensions are deepening around the world, and Christians are often the victims. Syria’s mostly Orthodox Christians are caught in the middle of the civil war between the government of Bashar al-Assad and its Islamist opponents. Egypt’s Copts are still attending charred churches, burned in anti-Christian pogroms and battling persistent anti-Christian sentiment. And now churches are even being targeted for attack by Hindu nationalists in India.
And yes, before you put coal in my stocking, I do understand that Christians aren’t the only ones in the world suffering from bigotry and violence. Just this past week, many Yezidis, another important religious minority in northern Iraq, finally got thrown a lifeline when Kurdish forces broke through an IS siege to open up a corridor to Mount Sinjar, where many Yezidis had been trapped. And yes, it’s absolutely true that many Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus are victims of persecution and terror. I think everyone in the world should be happy to see that stop. Faith should never be an excuse for violence.
What’s important to keep in mind in the case of Middle Eastern Christians is that the communities under attack embody unique cultural traditions that now stand on the verge of irreparable damage or even extinction. (Some of Iraq’s Christians still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.) Small wonder that a group of Christian and Muslim leaders recently meeting in Cairo issued a statement calling for tolerance pleading with Christians to remain in the Middle East. They understand that the loss of each one of these ancient communities of faith is a loss for all of us — and a victory for the forces of intolerance at a time when the world can least afford it.
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