Following the effective expulsion of Christians from the city of Mosul by Islamists last week, a prominent local abbot has voiced the need for concrete action supporting Christians in Iraq.
“The question and challenge is how to convince Christians they have (a) future in Iraq,” Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana wrote in a July 23 message to Aid to the Church in Need. “Nice words and sympathy statements are not enough. There should be deeds and practices.”
He called “public relations” statements made by the Iraqi government, such as “we are all Iraqis and all Iraq is ours” akin to “a person who is issuing bank checks but he doesn't have a bank account.”
Early in June, the Sunni militant organization ISIS began attacking cities in north and northwest Iraq, capturing Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province. On July 18, the group issued an ultimatum to Christians in the city, insisting they convert to Islam, pay jizya tax, or be killed. Thousands of Christians and other religious minorities fled the city, seeking refuge in villages in the Nineveh Plains and Kurdistan.
Archimandrite Youkhana's letter detailed the extent of ISIS desecration in Mosul: the city's some 30 churches and monasteries have all been seized, and their crosses removed. Many were looted and burned. The Syriac Orthodox cathedral of Mar Ephraim has been converted to a mosque.
The homes of Christians who have fled have been marked with the Arabic letter 'nun', standing for 'nusrani' – meaning Nazerene, or Christian. The homes have been confiscated for use by ISIS.
As Christians flee both north and east into Kurdistan and the Nineveh Plain, they are being stripped of what few possessions they had been able to carry with them. According to a report of Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq, a displaced family was forced from a car at a check point, beaten, and their gold, phones, cash, and car were all confiscated.
ISIS has not limited its attacks to Christians, however; all non-Sunni communities are targets. Shia mosques have been demolished, Archimandrite Youkhana recounted, and the Yazidi – an ethno-religious community – have also been targeted. The homes of Shiites have been marked with 'ra', standing for 'rejecter.'
ISIS has begun implementing female genital mutilation, according to reports.
Local Shiites of both the Turkmen and Shabak peoples have had their homes seized and destroyed, and they have fled to Erbil, in nearby Iraqi Kurdistan, 55 miles southeast of Mosul.
Archimandrite Youkhana noted that Turkmen and Shabak people adhering to Sunni Islam have been left in safety, saying this “reflects how deep the sectarian conflict is” in Iraq.
“The current situation reflects how the Iraqi structure was a fragile one,” he wrote. “Is there really a common Iraqi people feeling that they are one people and one country?”
Noting that the Shiites fleeing for Kurdistan are to be resettled in southern Iraq, where the majority of inhabitants are also Shiite, the abbot asked, “can anyone really expect” that they “will return back again to Talafar and Mosul? Personally, I doubt (it).”
Last week, Archimandrite Youkhana visited Bakhdida, Bartella, and Bashiqa, towns located fewer than 30 miles east of Mosul. All of them suffer from a lack of drinking water, electricity, and medicine, ISIS having cut off their supplies. Most of the Christians there are Syriac, either Catholic or Orthodox.
Bakhdida is a city of some 50,000, nearly all of them Syriac Catholics. Much of the city fled when ISIS seized Mosul, but local leaders told the abbot that about 80 percent had returned. “The current security situation is calm but the fear and horror is there as well,” he said.
In the town of Bashiqa, the local church is hosting 210 Christian families who were displaced from Mosul, Archimandrite Youkhana said. “This is good but it is extra burden upon the church whose resources are limited.”
Looking to the future, the abbot said he does not expect ISIS to expand into the Nineveh Plain, because of the peshmerga, or Kurdish militants; the Iraqi military in Tikrit; and because the population is not largely Shia, and so is not inclined to accept the Sunni Islamist group.
In the larger picture, however, he said that “the indicators are for more and deeper conflicts between Shiite on one side, and Sunni and Kurds on the other side.”
Christian Aid Program Northern Iraq noted: “We hoped, after 2003, that Iraq would emerge a strong country with a constitution that will guarantee the rights of all Iraqis regardless of their religion, ethnicity, sect, social, and political affiliation … but that hope started fading rapidly.”
In a July 20 statement to the Christians of Mosul, the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon, Louis Raphael I Sako, said that “our suffering, if joined to the suffering of our Savior Jesus, 'Man of Sorrows', will turn out to be a blessing and salvation to us and to others.”
The bishops of Mosul – gathering across denominations – assembled in the Erbil suburb of Ankawa July 22, under the leadership of Patriarch Sako. Their statement said they are “shocked, in pain, and worried about what happened to the innocent Christians of Mosul because of their religious affiliation,” adding that “it is a crime against humanity.”
“How else one can understand the expulsion of innocent civilians from their houses under the threat of death, the acquisition of their money, and the burning of their churches and monasteries that some of them go back to the pre-Islamic times? Isn't it a human and heritage disaster?”
The Mosul bishops called on the Iraqi government to protect Christians and other minorities; to provide financial support for the displaced families; and to give those families housing and schools if the crisis persists.
“We also call on people of conscience in Iraq and the world to (put) pressure on to those militants to stop the destruction of churches and monasteries and the burning of manuscripts and relics of the Christian heritage (which are) a priceless Iraqi and global heritage as well.”
The bishops showed their gratitude to Iraqi Kurdistan “for receiving and embracing the displaced families, providing them with the necessary aid,” contrasting this with their statement to the national government that “we are waiting for practical acts to reassure our people, not for statements of condemnation and denouncement.”
Their call for action and solidarity echoed the plea which ended Archimandrite Youkhana's letter: “Keep Iraqi suffering church and people in your prayers.”