Five years after the ISIS invasion of the Nineveh Plains, the end of Christianity in Iraq?
ON AUGUST 6, 2014, ISIS conquered the Christian communities on the Nineveh Plains, north of Mosul. Some 120,000 Christians had to flee overnight. Most of them found refuge in and around Erbil, capital of Kurdistan or Kurdish Iraq. For the following three years, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil was one of the pillars in providing support for the exiled community. In the fall of 2016, Iraqi forces and their allies recaptured the territory and to-date some 40,000 Christians have returned to the Nineveh Plains. Others have decided to remain in Erbil, while many have emigrated. Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) works closely with the local Churches on the reconstruction of the Christian towns on the Nineveh Plains. Five years after ISIS swept through the region, Archbishop Warda takes stock in an interview with ACN.
It has been five years of hardship. Looking back, what have you learned?
When a people have nothing left to lose, in some sense it is very liberating, and from this position of clarity and new-found courage I can speak on behalf of my people and tell you the truth. We are a people who have endured, with patience and faith, persecution for 1,400 years. The ISIS attack led to the displacement of more than 125,000 Christians from historical homelands and rendered us, in a single night, without shelter and refuge, without work or properties, without churches and monasteries, without the ability to participate in any of the normal things of life that give dignity; family visits, celebration of weddings and births, the sharing of sorrows. Our tormentors confiscated our present while seeking to wipe out our history and destroy our future. This was an exceptional situation, but it’s not an isolated one. It was part of the recurring cycle of violence in the Middle East over more than 1,400 years.
The ISIS invasion was the latest manifestation of a pattern.
With each successive cycle the number of Christians drops, till today we are at the point of extinction. Argue as you will, but extinction is coming, and then what will anyone say? That we were made extinct by natural disaster, or gentle migration? That the ISIS attacks were unexpected, and that we were taken by surprise? That is what the media will say. Or will the truth emerge after our disappearance: that we were persistently and steadily eliminated over the course of 1,400 years by a belief system which allowed for recurring cycles of violence against Christians, like the Ottoman genocide of 1916-1922.
There have been periods of greater Muslim tolerance of Christians
One cannot deny the existence of times of relative tolerance. Under the caliph al- Rashid, the House of Wisdom, the great library, was built in Baghdad. That was a time when Christian and Jewish scholarship was valued; a flowering of science, mathematics and medicine was made possible by Christian scholars who translated ancient Greek text. Our Christian ancestors shared with Muslim Arabs a tradition of thought and philosophy and they engaged with each other in respectful dialogue from the 8th century until the 14th century. The Arab Golden Age was built on Chaldean and Syriac scholarship. Christian scholarship. The imposition of Sharia law saw the decline of great learning, and the end of the Golden Age of Arab culture. A style of scholastic dialogue had developed, and this could only occur, because a succession of caliphs tolerated minorities. As toleration ended, so did the culture and wealth which flowed from it.
Would you say that peaceful coexistence and tolerance hold the key to the development of peoples?
Exactly. But these moments of toleration have been a one-way experience: Islamic rulers decide, according to their own judgment and whim, whether Christians and other non-Muslims are to be tolerated and to what degree. It is not, and has never, ever been a question of equality. Fundamentally, in the eyes of Islam, Christians are not equal. We are not to be treated as equal; we are only to be tolerated or not tolerated, depending upon the intensity of the prevailing jihadi spirit. The root of all of this is the teachings of jihad, the justification of acts of violence.
Iraqi Christians are going back to their communities. Is the situation now improving?
There are still extremist groups, growing in number, who hold that killing Christians and Yazidis helps the spread pf Islam. By strictly adhering to Koranic teaching they prescribe dhimmi status, or second class citizenship for minorities, allowing for the confiscation of property and enforcement of the jizya Islamic tax. We have lived under a shadow for centuries. According to my country’s constitution we are lesser citizens, we live at the discretion of our self-appointed superiors. Our humanity gives us no rights.
In Western countries all stand equal under the law. This basic principle of European and American life is the foundation of the Christian civic order, in which we are all children under a loving God, created in His image and likeness, which gives us all dignity, and holds that all are deserving of respect. Civic security grows out of a worldview that values every individual human not for their position or role, but simply because they are human. This view has been the great gift of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Rebuilding civil society means rebuilding it for everybody—so that everyone has a place, and everyone has a chance to thrive.
The truth is that there is a foundational crisis within Islam itself, and if this crisis is not acknowledged, addressed and fixed then there can be no future for civil society in the Middle East, or indeed anywhere Islam where brings itself to bear upon a host nation.
There are those who argue that the brutality and the violence of ISIS have changed the Islamic world, too. Do you agree?
Clearly, ISIS shocked the conscience of the world, and has shocked the conscience of the Islamic-majority world as well. The question now is whether or not Islam will continue on a political trajectory, in which Sharia is the basis for civil law and nearly every aspect of life is circumscribed by religion, or whether a more, tolerant movement will develop.
The defeat of ISIS has not seen the defeat of the idea of the re-establishment of the Caliphate. This notion has been reawakened and is now firmly implanted in minds throughout the Muslim world. And with this idea of the Caliphate there come all the formal historical structures of intentional inequality and discrimination against non-Muslims. I speak here not only of Iraq. We see leaders in other countries in the Middle East who are clearly acting in a way consistent with the re-establishment of the Caliphate.
How do you think that the West will react to this?
Will the West continue to condone this never-ending, organized persecution of minorities? When the next wave of violence begins to hit us, will anyone on your campuses hold demonstrations and carry signs that say, “We are all Christians?” And yes I do say, the “next wave of violence,” for this is simply the natural result of a ruling system that preaches inequality and justifies persecution. The equation is not complicated. One group is taught that they are superior and legally entitled to treat others as inferior human beings on the sole basis of their faith and religious practices. This teaching inevitably leads to violence against any “inferiors” who refuse to change their faith. And there you have it—such is the history of Christians in the Middle East for the last 1,400 years.
Change must come about as the conscious effort of the Muslim world itself. We see the small beginnings, perhaps, of this recognition in Egypt, in Jordan, in Asia, even in Saudi Arabia. Certainly, it remains to be seen as to whether there is actual sincerity in this.
Does Christianity in Middle East have a prophetic mission?
Mine is a missionary role: to give daily witness to the teachings of Christ, to show the truth of Christ and to provide a living example to our Muslim neighbors of a path to a world of forgiveness, of humility, of love, of peace. Lest there be any confusion, here I am not speaking of conversion. Rather, I am speaking of the fundamental truth of forgiveness which we Christians of Iraq can share, and share from a position of historically unique moral clarity. We forgive those who murdered us, who tortured us, who raped us, who sought to destroy everything about us. We forgive them. In the name of Christ, we forgive them. And so we say to our Muslim neighbors, ‘learn this from us. Let us help you heal. Your wounds are as deep as ours. We know this. We pray for your healing. Let us heal our wounded and tortured country together.
What about our Western secular society, according to your opinion, what would our task be?
The heart of the struggle is to understand the nature of the battle. You will have to ask yourselves how long a moderate and decent society can survive without the influence of Christian institutions. How long can the tradition exist after the faith has died? What will flow into the vacuum? The role Christian communities play, or have played, in Islamic societies has been overlooked. It is an important part of the formation of civil society in most of the world. It needs highlighting because the situation in Iraq has been woefully misread by Western decision-makers. There is no reason to believe they will not misread the same signs and portents in their own countries. You think you are a long way from the chaos of Iraq? Let me assure you: it is only six hours away.
Understanding what has happened in Iraq means being truthful about the nature and purpose of the Christian civil order. It means being truthful about the nature and purpose of the laws of Islam. It means being truthful about what happens when these two come together in one place. I appreciate that this is an uncomfortable subject to discuss in the comfort of a peaceful country. But for Iraqi Christians this is no abstract matter.
Are we facing the end of Christianity in Iraq?
It could be. We acknowledge this. Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest Churches, is perilously close to extinction. In the years prior to 2003, we numbered as many as one-and-a-half million: six percent of Iraq’s population. Today, there are perhaps as few as 250,000 of us left, maybe less. Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom.
The entire world faces a moment of truth. Will a peaceful and innocent people continue to be persecuted and eliminated because of their faith? For the sake of not wanting to speak the truth to the persecutors, will the world be complicit in our elimination? The world should understand that on our path to extinction we will not go quietly any longer. From this point onward, we will speak the truth, and live out the truth, in full embrace of our Christian witness and mission, so that, if someday we are gone, no one will be able to ask: how did this happen?
We Christians are a people of hope. But facing the end also brings us clarity, and with it the courage to finally speak the truth. Our hope to remain in our ancient homeland now rests on our own ability, and the ability of our oppressors and of the world at large, to acknowledge the truth. Violence and discrimination targeting the innocents must end. Those who teach it must stop. We Christians of Iraq, who have faced 1,400 years of discrimination, persecution, violence and genocide, are prepared to speak out and bear witness to our oppressors and to the world—whatever the consequences.
Since 2014, Aid to the Church in Need has been on the forefront of supporting Iraqi Christians with projects totaling more than $47M, including humanitarian aid for faithful who fled to Kurdistan to escape ISIS, the repair and rebuilding of Christian homes on the Nineveh Plains, and, currently, the reconstruction and repair of Church infrastructure in northern Iraq.