Archon News

The Vanishing: The Plight of Iraqi Christians in an Age of Intolerance

This moving article from Harper’s Magazine provides a comprehensive overview of the tragedy of Christians in Iraq. The Orthodox Christians and Christians of other faith traditions had lived in Iraq since apostolic times, but over the last fifteen years most have had their lives disrupted, hundreds of thousands have been driven into exile, and much of the Christian presence in Iraq has been effaced. A great deal of what has been destroyed can never be recovered. Some of these Christians are now returning home, only to find ruins and a monumental task to rebuild even some semblance of what their communities had been before the war began. Iraq is where the modern-day persecution of Christians has been particularly intense. Please continue to pray for these beleaguered communities, that our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ would show them mercy and follow the crucifixion they have suffered with a resurrection.

“The Vanishing,” by Janine di Giovanni, Harper’s Magazine, November 21, 2018:

On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

In the summer of 2014, the Islamic State occupied Christian cities and villages across northern Iraq, appropriated Christian homes, and destroyed farms of Christian families. When Islamic State commanders separated men from women and imposed jizyah, or extortion taxes, their purpose was extreme: they meant to subjugate the Christians or drive them away from the land. Mar Mattai is some twenty miles from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, where more than one hundred thousand Christians were displaced from their homes. One of the children led me to a wall at the edge of the monastery and pointed below to the brown, dusty tracts of fields that lie at the edge of a region once known as Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers. From above, I saw how exposed the road to Mosul was.

The Christians here have endured invasions by Persians, Kurds, and Turks, but they have recovered after each persecution. This is, in part, their tradition: they believe in their sacred right to their land. Mosul is part of the Assyrian triangle, recorded in the Book of Genesis, and the plains of Nineveh—where the Hebrew prophet Jonah is said to have preached after he was spat out by a giant fish in the eighth century bc—are situated on the outskirts of Mosul on the east bank of the Tigris River.

This time, things were different, said Niser’s husband, Behnam, a thirty-year-old who had come to the gathering from Qaraqosh, an Assyrian Catholic town just outside Mosul that was invaded by the Islamic State in 2014. “We’re worried,” he said. “Even with ISIS gone, there’s another big threat: there is no work for us. Our enemy is emigration. People are leaving every day.”

During Saddam Hussein’s regime, which lasted from 1979 to 2003, I began tracking Christians in Iraq. After working and living alongside them over many years, I had learned how Christians throughout the Middle East survived brutal dictatorships: often endorsing the regimes in return for protection, as they did in Iraq under Saddam, as they did in Maaloula, in Syria, where Christians would tell me quietly that they preferred Bashar al-Assad to theoretically worse alternatives.

Then came the American invasion of Iraq. The country’s unraveling. The Syrian civil war. The bloodshed in the West Bank and Gaza. The attacks on Christians in Egypt. Finally, the rise of the Islamic State, a group that’s certain to return in some new form even as President Donald Trump boasts of its defeat. Christians in the Middle East who have survived all this are likely to face peril once more.

The majority of Iraqi Christians are ethnic Assyrians, who belong to the Catholic Chaldean denomination. They have roots in the region that go back two thousand years, and some claim that they can connect their family trees with the apostle Thomas, who came to Mesopotamia to evangelize during the first century. The Garden of Eden is believed by some researchers to have been in Iraq—sometimes drivers would tell me it was near the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon, south of Baghdad. Abraham came from Ur, a Sumerian city-state, which scholars believe was located two hundred miles outside the capital. I drove through the country, north to south, taking notes on an ancient culture I knew could disappear.

The persecution of Christians in Iraq began as early as the thirteenth century. But in recent years it has reached a tipping point, setting off a mass exodus. In 2002, when I was living in Baghdad, six months before the US invasion, there were nearly 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. Today there are between 250,000 and 300,000 left, according to Samuel Tadros, a fellow at the Hudson Institute.

On most Sundays in Baghdad, I worshipped at the white stone St. Mary’s Chaldean Church. Sitting with people who were meditating and singing quietly in an ancient language was a respite from the madness of the country as the war approached. Everywhere I went, I was watched by Saddam’s secret police, the Mukhabarat. The maids in my hotel searched my drawers and emptied my pockets. Compromising films, often of a sexual nature, were made of journalists and visiting diplomats. On nights when Saddam’s crazed sons, Qusay and Uday, visited my hotel, I stayed locked in my room. Everyone whispered.

After mass, my Palestinian driver and I used to have lunch at a Christian restaurant that served chicken sandwiches on toasted saj, dough placed on a hot griddle and baked over a wood fire, something like a Middle-Eastern pizza. I frequented a Christian grocery store that sold alcohol and other rare but pricey provisions. When I had the permission of Iraqi officials, I drove north to Mosul and Nineveh, to meet with the Christian communities, stay in people’s homes, celebrate holidays, and talk to the priests and bishops. “In five years we will be no more,” one priest told me, in 2003. At the time, it seemed alarmist, but his words contained a kernel of truth.

Saddam’s Iraq was ruled by the secular Ba’ath Party, which, as with secular regimes in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey, had long protected Christians in exchange for their support. Saddam belonged to the Sunni branch of Islam, which represented fewer than 40 percent of Iraqis. Because his government was itself one of minority rule, other minorities including Christians enjoyed a degree of security. Many Christians told me that they felt better protected under that regime than they currently do.

It is hard to imagine benefiting from a regime as brutal as Saddam’s. Yet, “there was a kind of a social contract in Iraq,” between minorities and Saddam, Adeed Dawisha, a professor of political science at Miami University in Ohio told PBS NewsHour. “Under Saddam, it was understood that if you don’t interfere in politics, then you are provided with a good life. If the Christians supported Saddam, not because they loved what he was doing, it was in fear of the alternative.”

Christians prospered economically during that time. They were businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and engineers. They ran the shops, the markets, and the nicer hotels. A select few were part of the political elite, such as Tariq Aziz, who served as foreign minister and deputy prime minister under Saddam. But despite the secularism promoted by the regime, ancient rifts endured.

During Saddam’s last days, when it became clear that the Bush Administration was going to invade, anxiety replaced this uneasy tolerance. There were rumors that Saddam and his people had resolved to go down in flames before the Americans reached the center; that all Westerners would be rounded up and tried as traitors; that the Shia would take revenge on the Christians who had sided with Saddam.

In December 2002, reporting for the Times of London, I went to a special mass in Mosul in honor of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the French Catholic saint who was known as “the Little Flower.” As I knelt, people rocked, prayed, and sobbed as if they were grieving the death of a family member. As St. Thérèse’s bones passed through the church, and the Aramaic chanting grew louder, the worshippers touched the wooden box that contained the saint’s remains, as if she might rise up and rescue them. One blue-eyed Assyrian woman next to me was convulsed in tears. “Please, don’t let this war happen,” a petite nun said, grabbing my hands. Four months later, US Marines tore down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square.

After the invasion, attacks against Christians became more frequent, inspired by Osama bin Laden’s messages. A Sunni Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi planted the early seeds of Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2004. His targets were Shiite Muslims—to extremist Sunnis, inauthentic Muslims—and Christians. At the same time, another jihadi group, Ansar al-Sunna, also began to threaten Christian families. Then came the Islamic State.

These insurgency groups launched a series of bombings that targeted many churches in Iraq, including St. Mary’s, where I had worshipped before the war. In a horrific incident on October 31, 2010, a group of jihadis from the Islamic State wearing suicide vests entered Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad during the evening mass, and killed fifty-eight people, including priests, worshippers, and police officers. The brutal attack was an act of retaliation against a Florida evangelical minister who had threatened to burn the Koran. In a later message, the Islamic State called the church a “dirty den of idolatry.”

On June 10, 2014, the Islamic State captured Mosul. I was in my hotel room listening to the BBC when my driver rushed in. He was hearing reports that the Islamic State was only sixty miles from the capital. For days, we had no news, and then the reports began to trickle out. Christians were told to leave or die. Soon after, I visited William Warda in his Baghdad home. Warda was the head of political and military affairs for a political party called the Assyrian Democratic Movement. He was born in Mosul and graduated from the university there. When I found him in his office, he was distraught. He was trying to reach his relatives, but the phone lines were down. “It’s a cleansing of all Christians from the region,” he said.

We sat drinking coffee in a dark room, and Warda shifted the cup between his hands. His aides came in and out, speaking urgently to him in Arabic. People were showing up at his door for advice: Should they stay in Iraq and risk extermination, they asked, or flee to join relatives outside the country and risk living in permanent exile? “How can I tell them not to go?” he asked, his voice thick with sorrow. “I know they have no future here. But if they go . . . we as Christians have no future here.”…

Continue reading here.

Subscribe to our mailing list

More Posts

Share