FOREIGN AFFAIRS by John MorrisseyNews Weekly
Australia should help Iraq's besieged Christians
, August 16, 2014
In what is emerging as one of the worst atrocities of the civil war in Iraq, jihadists from the Islamic State (IS) who captured control of the city of Mosul, about 300 km north of the capital, Baghdad, in June, have murdered many of the city’s Christian minority and forced the rest to flee.
The Sunni terrorists have also destroyed a number of mosques and shrines of the Shia branch of Islam.
Christians have fled en masse from Mosul, Iraq’s
second-largest city, abandoning communities
that date back to the first centuries of Christianity.
(The terror is reminiscent of the dark days of Pol Pot in Cambodia, after the communists seized power there in 1975).
The nation’s second largest city, Mosul, was once the home of 60,000 Christians, but now scarcely any remain. During the last decade, up to 50,000 have fled. Some of those unable to leave in recent days have converted under duress to Islam, while many others have been slaughtered. These atrocities have been condemned across the Western world and by peak Islamic spokesmen.
To follow the Australian media, still absorbed in the drama of Flight MH17’s fatal crash in eastern Ukraine and the daily death toll in Gaza, where Hamas provokes Israel in order to win a propaganda war with the blood of its own people, one might be excused for being unaware of the plight of Iraq’s Christians.
To its credit, the ABC News website (July 30) has provided a clear and quite detailed picture of events in Mosul. It tells of the choice given by the militants to convert by July 18, pay a special tax, leave or have “nothing but the sword”. By July 18, however, the militants had changed their mind, deciding that all Christians must leave the next day — or face death.
Those who left — and some were reported shot on the way — saw the red Arabic letter N, standing for Nassarah (i.e., Christian), spray-painted on their doors, and their vacant homes looted. Militants confiscated the few remaining possessions of the fleeing Christians — vehicles, money and valuables — forcing families to walk in sweltering heat to nearby villages, where they are far from safe.
The militants have methodically set about destroying churches or converting them to mosques. They have reportedly blown up the reputed tomb of the prophet Jonah.
We are also told that governments around the world are under pressure from Christian churches to take action. France has already offered asylum to displaced Christians, and the Vatican has promised thousands of euros in emergency aid.
It is pleasing to learn that the Australian government will provide $5 million to support humanitarian relief and that the National Council of Churches has sent $30,000 in aid. Rallies were held in Sydney and Melbourne on Saturday, August 2, to coincide with other protests worldwide demanding action.
Attending one of these, in Melbourne’s Federation Square, I found several thousand people, mainly young and in Western dress, and a sea of crosses and banners. They read “Pray for Iraq”, “Save Our Christians”, “Stop the Genocide”, “Demand Action — Where is the UN?” and many other appeals.
Speakers called for support for Iraq’s besieged Christians, who have “lost their lives, their homes, their families”, and addressed their “appeal to peace-loving people all over the earth”. Slogans were coined and the chant was taken up by the crowd: “We are Christians, we are proud — no more silence, speak out loud”.
The rally was organised by Melbourne’s Chaldean, Assyrian and Syriac communities and supported by the Australian Christian Lobby and similar Christian organisations.
But what action can be taken? The world always looks to the United States, and then blames Uncle Sam, whatever the outcome. After all, what is happening in Iraq today is only a repetition of what began in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood and which is still occurring in the war in Syria.
The plight of Christian minorities has received scant media attention, especially since early 2011 when a series of uprisings against dictatorial regimes across the Middle East was enthusiastically hailed as the “Arab Spring”.
Perhaps stirred to action by the urging of Republican Congressmen such as Frank Wolf from Virginia, the U.S. State Department has only just admitted that in Syria, “as in much of the Middle East, the Christian presence is becoming a shadow of its former self”.
On condition that they not be named, officials conceded that they had never prioritised persecuted Christians in the Middle East, that “very little can be done at this point”, and that “It’s almost too late anyway; most of the Christians have already fled and others have been forced to convert. This certainly can be categorised as a genocide” (The Blaze, July 29, 2014).
So where are the estimated 5,000 recent exiles today, and what are their prospects? Some 250 have found shelter in Mar Mattei Monastery, atop a mountain only 20 kms from Mosul.
“It is no longer possible for Christians to live in Iraq,” said the wife of Raad Ghanem, who had been thrown out of her job at a Mosul hospital where she had worked for 30 years.
Her husband added: “When we left in the middle of the night, we were stripped of everything. Money, wallets, jewellery, ID, passports, watches, everything ... at the Daesh checkpoint on the way out of the city. Sick people, disabled people, poor people were all forced to leave. They killed my cousin after they looked at his ID,” added a lady named Ikram Hama. (USA Today, July 29, 2014).
Many more refugees are gathered in the city of Qaraqosh, 30 kms from Mosul, protected by Kurdish fighters. Indeed, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and its self-reliant forces provide the only safe haven for Iraq’s Christians, although many are already in Lebanon.
The Iraqi government of Nouri al-Malaki has done nothing for its Christian citizens, but has evacuated Shi-ites from Mosul in convoys of buses and even by air, before Islamic State militants entered the city and “left Christians there to die”, as Frank Wolf put it.
Local Sunnis who have tried to intercede for them have been ignored, while a Mosul law professor, Mahmoud al Asali, who spoke up for moderation, was murdered (Fox News, July 29, 2014).
In the probable break-up of Iraq, the Kurds will likely retain their autonomous region, but there is no hope for the long dreamed of safe homeland for Christians on the plain of Nineveh. The sad irony is that, as in President Assad’s Syria, the 1.4 million Christians were relatively secure in Iraq under Saddam Hussein prior to 2003.
As the Islamic State forces set out to erase every Christian trace from Iraq and beyond, we should not pretend that Christianity’s 2,000-year-old presence has always been one of peace and security. The last Christians to speak Jesus’ language of Aramaic have survived both the Caliphate, which expanded at astonishing speed after Muhammed’s death in the seventh century, and which still remained in existence under the Ottoman Empire from 1517 to 1924.
Under both regimes, some talented Christians rose to great heights; but most paid a special tax and lived quietly as second-class citizens. Under the 14th-century Mongol ruler Timur (or Tamerlane), they were almost exterminated. During 1914-18 — at the same time as the Turkish genocide of the Armenians — the Ottoman Turkish army and Arab militias waged a ferocious campaign of religious persecution, which halved the Assyrian Christian population.
But as the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaël I Sako eulogised, “How much the Christians have shared here in our East specifically from the beginnings of Islam..... Together they built a civilisation, cities and a heritage. It is truly unjust now to treat Christians by rejecting them and throwing them away, considering them as nothing” (Fox News, July 29, 2014).
Neither the U.S. nor the UN nor any Western nation is going to put boots on the ground to reinstate these Christians in their own land, and the best that we can hope for is the provision of humanitarian aid and places of asylum. Lebanon is already awash with refugees from Syria, and the arrival of Christians from Iraq is causing friction.
It is totally unrealistic to criticise France’s offer of asylum on its soil to destitute Christians currently in Kurdistan, as the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch and Levant has done. The Greek Catholic Patriarch Lahham III has added, “We do need someone to receive us, but we need someone to help us stay in our land. Help us fight terrorism....”
Like President Obama’s United States, Australia is most unlikely to venture a military presence in this war. Nonetheless, humanitarian aid and asylum are well within our capacity, regardless of the muted response from our media.
We are still a majority Christian country, and should give urgent priority to granting asylum to persecuted Christians, especially now that the Abbott government has wrested control of our refugee program from the people-smugglers and their friends among our chattering classes.
During and after the break-up of Yugoslavia (1990-93), Australia received 15,000 refugees from Bosnia and Croatia. In the aftermath of the conflict over Kosovo in 1996-99, temporary protection visas were given to 4,000 Albanian Muslims, air-lifted to Australia in the face of Serbian threats.
We face exactly the same duty to respond compassionately on this occasion. The ethnic cleansing of Iraqi Christians — and not Turkmen and other minorities, whom the Islamic State is sparing — is as vicious as anything which occurred in the Balkans.
Recalling the great tragedy of the Jewish Holocaust, one of the speakers at the Melbourne rally pleaded, “We are here because we remember the last time. We of the so-called civilised world have stood back and let it happen.”
John Morrissey is a Melbourne-based writer.