Christianity faces extinction in Iraq. Is the West doing enough?
On the night of August 6, 2014 ISIS fighters swept through northern Iraq’s Nineveh Plains and drove more than 120,000 Christians into exile in Kurdistan. Five years later, with ISIS ousted, a measure of stability has returned to the region.
With ISIS defeated, 40,000 Christians have returned to their ancient homeland, re-populating nine historically Christian towns. Overall, about 250,000 remain in Iraq, down from 1.5 million in 2003, on the eve of the US invasion. For the moment, they are safe, but Sunni Muslims and Iran-backed militias have designs on their land and property.
The US has pledged to channel significant USAID funding to faith-based organizations on the ground that are helping oversee the rebuilding of homes, schools, hospitals, as well as water and electricity infrastructures and other vital repairs. But in order to further stabilize the region and increase economic opportunity, funds must be disbursed quickly.
One of Iraq’s most prominent Christian leaders has deeper concerns. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need marking the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Kurdistan stressed that “Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to extinction.” The prelate, whose local Church cared for the exiled families from the Nineveh Plains for almost three years, insists that the ISIS atrocities are part of “the recurring cycle of violence targeting Christians in the Middle East for more than 1,400 years.”
From the beginnings of Islam in the 7th century, whether Christians and other non-Muslims “were to be tolerated and to what degree” depended on the “judgment and whim” of particular rulers, stressed the archbishop. In the end, Christians were only to be tolerated “depending upon the intensity of the prevailing jihadi spirit.” The archbishop notes that even during the Arab Golden Age, from the 8th to the 14th century, which was “built on Chaldean and Syriac scholarship” and marked by rich Muslim-Christian dialogue, “it was never a question of equality” between Christians and Muslims.
The horrors of ISIS have “shocked the conscience” of the Islamic world. What remains to be seen, says Archbishop Warda, is “whether or not Islam will continue on its current political trajectory, in which Sharia law is the basis for civil law and nearly every aspect of life is circumscribed by religion, or whether a more civil, tolerant movement will develop.” On that score, there have been recent alarming reports that the Iraqi Parliament is due to vote on a provision to appoint mullahs as judges, with the prospect of Sharia law overriding secular laws that are in conflict with it.
The archbishop argues that the Judeo-Christian tradition holds the key to addressing what he calls the “foundational crisis within Islam itself.” The “great gift” of the Western tradition, he says, is that “all are equal under the law,” simply by virtue of their humanity. That is the basis of what he calls “civic security, which grows out of a worldview that values all human beings, not for their position or role, but simply because they are human.”
By contrast, under Sharia law, in Koranic teaching, Archbishop Warda charges, “our humanity gives us no rights;” the Iraqi constitution spells out that Christians and other minorities “are lesser citizens,” he says, which prevents the establishment and full functioning of a “civic order.”
That civic order is the foundation for peace and prosperity for all people, Archbishop Warda says; it is the fruit of the humanizing mission of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The archbishop calls on Western leaders to be unafraid of “being truthful about the nature and purpose of the laws of Islam;” to boldly challenge the governments of Muslim nations and make the case, forcefully and consistently, that genuine respect for and protection of the rights of Christians and other minorities benefits all of society.
Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo convened the second annual Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. It brought together more than 1,000 government officials, religious leaders and NGO representatives who are all committed to stand up for the right to religious freedom. Religious freedom is a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of the civic order extolled by the archbishop.
At the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo announced the formation of a new International Religious Freedom Alliance. Such a body of willing nations could be the perfect instrument to engage Muslim nations in consequential discussions about their treatment of non-Muslim minorities. For this alliance to work, it must be more than a discussion group issuing wish lists and policy proposals. The member nations must be ready to use diplomatic pressure and sanctions to nudge recalcitrant nations into positive action.
Will the West live up to its high calling, and stand by persecuted Christians and other minorities? For Archbishop Warda and his flock it is a matter of life and death. He has no illusions: “Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom,” he says, asking: “for the sake of not wanting to speak the truth to the persecutors, will the world be complicit in our elimination?” He concludes: “We, Christians of Iraq, who have faced 1,400 years of persecution, violence and genocide, are prepared to speak out and bear witness to our oppressors and to the world—whatever the consequences.”
Editor’s note: a version of this article first appeared on the National Review.