09 August 2014
As the conflict in Gaza continues, violence in other parts of the Middle East has taken second place in the thoughts of many. Yet new and frightening levels of violence have unfolded this week with the systematic persecution of Christians in areas of Iraq falling into the hands of militants from the Islamic State formerly known as Isis. Its fighters have captured Iraq’s largest Christian town, forcing the 50,000 residents of Qaraqosh to flee and creating a humanitarian disaster. Christians in neighbouring Bartella and Tel Kayf now fear their cities are next to fall. In the last week or two, a half million Christians have been driven from their homes in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. As they left, they were robbed of their few remaining valuables, and the Islamic State jihadists occupied 10 churches, removing crosses and burning ancient books and manuscripts. The Christians left behind were offered the alternatives of converting to Islam, paying a heavy tax that includes handing over female family members, or beheading. The doorposts of Christian houses and churches throughout Islamic State-controlled areas have been daubed with the letter “N,” the initial of the word Nasara used in the Koran for Christians.
There are deep-rooted Christian communities across the Middle East; their history and destiny bound up with the countries where they live. But the gains of the Arab Spring have been reversed and Christians now find themselves on the wrong side of the new politics, suffering severe persecution. Iraq’s three main Christian traditions – Chaldean, Assyrian and Orthodox – date from the times of the apostolic church. In their liturgies, the Chaldean and Assyrian churches use Syriac, the language closest to the Aramaic of Christ. The word Christian was first used in Antioch. There are still more Christians in Egypt today (8.4 million) than the total population of Ireland. But Copts have emigrated in large numbers in the past three years, tens of thousands of Christians have fled Syria, and in Lebanon, Christians who were once a majority have been reduced to one-third of the population.
The Chaldean Patriarch, Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, has urged Iraqi Christians not to emigrate: “This is your land and the contribution you can make does not depend on your number, but on your attitude.” But more than half of Iraq’s Christians have fled since the 2003 invasion, leaving behind 400,000 Christians, or a mere 3 per cent of the population. Arab Christians complain of western indifference to their sufferings. The Christian population in the Middle East is shrinking at a faster rate than ever before, through forced emigration and wholesale killings. The end of Christianity in the region would impoverish the Middle East and the world politically, socially and culturally.