Iraqi Christians no longer need to plan for worst case scenarios, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of northern Kurdistan told the General Synod of the Church of England earlier this week, because the reality of persecution and violence facing their hometowns at the hands of ISIS and Boko Haram militants has forced them into “fight or flight” mode. Countless faithful Christians are fleeing their homes to seek refuge in the northern parts of the country, many enduring the displacement only long enough to save enough money to leave the country for safer territory. Still others are choosing to hold their ground and fight for their right to stay in their homeland and protect their families and communities from the cruelty and terrorism that has taken hold in the turbulent region.
Some Iraqi Christians are organizing efforts to take back their homes with the intent to liberate the Nineveh Plain where Christians and ethnic minorities have encountered much anguish and misery under ISIS rule. Feeling abandoned by government forces in the region who fled when ISIS attacks overpowered several Christian villages, displacing approximately 30,000 Christians in that area, adding to the over 100,000 Iraqi believers uprooted by the ISIS -led violence across the country. Nasser Abdullah, a training leader in the Christian defense force explains that his desire is to take charge of their own defense rather than waiting for another force to sweep in and rescue them. Nonetheless, they may need monetary aid to pay for training all the inexperienced recruits.
However, not everyone is choosing to fight. A group of Dominican Sisters from Springfield, Illinois visited the area in January 2015 to support their Iraqi Sisters and witnessed first hand the desperate humanitarian crisis that the frenzy of bloodshed and brutality is causing. Highways are clogged with thousands of vehicles carrying fleeing families, afraid for their lives, away from the impending onslaught of militant extremists against their towns and villages. The Iraqi Dominican group, along with a high percentage of the Christian population in Iraq, members of the minority Yazidi ethnic group and even some Muslims have had to flee in the middle of the night, leaving their homes and businesses to be looted by former neighbors.
The displaced Christians and other minorities will not be classified as “refugees” unless they cross their national borders into another country. However, the label of “displaced” or “refugee” is a minor technicality for those forced to seek shelter in unfinished construction sites, tents, caravans and cinderblock structures, sleeping 15 to a room at times, on cement or dirt floors with no plumbing and spotty electricity at best and nighttime temperatures dropping to near freezing. The fortunate ones occasionally find a foam mat on which to sleep.
Many families are grief-stricken at the abduction of their women by ISIS forces, an all too present danger in ISIS-controlled territory. Still others receive taunting phone calls from former neighbors, bragging about looting their homes and businesses. The Springfield Dominican Sisters even heard of churches being turned into torture chambers and prisons. In spite of occasional providential returns, such as the wealthy Mosul man who purchased as many of the abductees as he could from ISIS and returning them to their families, the Iraqi Sisters have noticed the physical repercussions on the faces of the displaced, stating that “they don’t look the same.” The displaced people are helping relief organization with much needed shelter construction and medical care among other services.
Even if the fighting and violent terrorism were to stop today, returning home is not an option for many Iraqi citizens whose villages were destroyed or laced with unexploded land mines, not to mention trust issues with their former neighbors who are exploiting their absence by looting what they left behind. Sister Marcelline Koch of the Dominican Sisters of Springfield explains that even those who hope to return, cannot do so without the presence of ongoing protection to ensure their safety.
According to Open Doors, a watch group for Christian persecution around the globe reveals that this year’s Watch List shows that reports of persecution and violence have risen in every country and region. They contend that working to end Christian persecution is in the best interest of oppressed people everywhere and therefore of U.S. national interests. When Christians are persecuted to the point of abandoning a region, they argue, the void is filled with the militant extremists who drove them out. With the extremists in control, religious freedom disappears, oppression skyrockets and violence becomes a way of life for everyone suffering under their rule. Defending religious freedom keeps this kind of extremism under control.
For many years, Christians and Muslims co-existed in relative peace in Iraq, but the country is now third on Open Doors’ World Watch List as one of the harshest places to openly identify as a Christian. They report that the Christian population has fallen from about one million 12 years ago to around 300,000 in 2014, most of whom are displaced to the northern regions of Iraq. Although Iraqi history is littered with violent actions against the Christian church, Archbishop Warda, warns that the events of 2014 raised it to the level of genocide that threatens to utterly eliminate the Christian religion and culture from the region of ancient Mesopotamia. Open Doors urges the Western public, to wake up and pay attention to what is happening to Iraqi Christians; and take action before history repeats itself in Nigeria or elsewhere.
By Tamara Christine