Johnnie Moore, formerly pastor of Liberty University and currently chief of staff to Hollywood producer Mark Burnett, has lately been devoting his time to doing something to help persecuted Christians — those displaced and under threat by the grave evil that is ISIS. He is author of a recent book called Defying ISIS: Preserving Christianity in the Place of Its Birth and in Your Own Backyard. His goal is to educate, motivate, rally, and assist. (Burnett, along with his wife, Roma Downey, has started The Cradle Fund to raise money to support the displaced.) We talk about some of the Christians he’s met from Iraq and Syria and the plight they face.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Your book’s website asks if a Christian holocaust is happening. How is that not sensationalism?
Johnnie Moore: My book documents what is actually happening to people at the hands of ISIS and what ISIS aims to do. I intentionally wrote the book to not be sensationalist because the documented truth is alarming enough both when it comes to the assault on Christians in the Middle East and when it comes to the influence ISIS is already having in the West. The fact is that we are witnessing a once-in-a-thousand-year assault on ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. Rest assured, if ISIS has the chance they will do to every Christian in the region — and in the world — what they’ve already done to so many in the Middle East. Entire communities have been displaced or eliminated; men, women, and children have been murdered in the most heinous ways for their faith alone. Others have been forcibly converted or subjected to taxes; Christian homes have been targeted; women and girls have been sold into sexual slavery; and the list goes on and on. They terrorize in every sense of the word: Assyrian Christian villagers attacked by ISIS a few weeks ago had been paying their tax to the Islamic State to protect themselves. ISIS decided to kidnap them anyway, escalating their tactics. Do they kill them next? And how? That’s what they want. Horror and death.
Lopez: You write about a pastor who may or may not be alive. Why do you start with him, and how did you lose track of him?
Moore: Unfortunately, I’ve lost track of lots of Christian leaders in Iraq and Syria because of the volatility of the region. They vanish either into awful refugee conditions where it becomes difficult for them to communicate, others have been imprisoned, and others have been killed. Hopefully, this pastor still lives, but if he does he is among the fortunate. Maybe by now he has become a martyr? I simply don’t know, but one thing I do know is that his letter to me that day changed my life.
Lopez: Why does ISIS “take particular joy in a Christian life lost”?
Moore: ISIS has been clear that they aim to “march to Rome.” That phrase has been in every single piece of written or spoken communication by [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and it is a core part of their mission. They believe they will eventually “defeat the crusader” armies and speak openly about “breaking their crosses” and “selling and enslaving their women and children.” ISIS even put a picture of St. Peter’s Square on the front of the October edition of their magazine with a chilling ISIS flag superimposed atop the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the center of the square. This is no imagined crisis. This is at the heart of their plan. In fact, the first major attack by Baghdadi when he took charge of the Islamic State of Iraq in 2010 was against a Catholic Church in Baghdad.
Lopez: “ISIS has brought an incarnation of hell itself into monasteries and churches, the homes of peace-loving believers, and on the streets of ancient cities where the severed heads of all those who’ve stood in their way are routinely on display.” But the world has seen evil before. How is this different?
Moore: This is a pre-modern type of evil that we thought was left to bygone eras. There is no brutality they won’t inflict.
Lopez: Why is it important to consider just how Christian Syria was at one time?
Moore: There is as much Christian history and archaeology in Syria as in any nation in the region. In fact, Christians were first called “Christians” in Syria. Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, and for many years in the early Church the Syrian city of Antioch boasted of the strongest Christian churches in the region. Syria is the place where many of Christianity’s oldest churches and monasteries have thrived continuously for nearly 2,000 years.
Lopez: “The plan at the heart of the ISIS threat is to plant their radicalism into the heart of St. Peter’s Square, and to raise their black flag over the city that most symbolizes Christianity.” But isn’t that just propaganda? Do we feed ISIS momentum by repeating it and receiving it as a real threat?
Moore: No one for a single moment should we believe ISIS will not move on this if they have a chance. We’ve learned they will continue their atrocities with or without their propaganda. Unfortunately, our global leaders aren’t as passionate about stopping them as they are about silencing them. Hopefully, by telling the truth about ISIS we can raise public awareness and put unrelenting pressure on our national leaders to halt this threat.
Lopez: If they are as terrible as you say they are, why did they release some Assyrian Christians in the last week or so?
Moore: ISIS is not homogeneous. That particular sharia court accepted a ransom after Sunni tribesmen negotiated the release of about 20 of the 300. The fate of the rest remains unknown. There are lots of theories as to why they agreed to do this. Some are encouraging. Others are most certainly not.
Lopez: You repeat the words of an elderly Christian woman you met in Iraq, “We have been living a nightmare. Christianity in Iraq is bleeding . . . we are extremely exhausted . . . every day we hope tomorrow will be better, but our tomorrows seem to bring only more tears and more hardship. . . . When will you rescue us?” How do you answer a question like that?
Moore: I will have a clean conscience. I’m doing everything in my power to help these people. And I am committed to doing more. I’m praying everyone who reads this book will choose to do the same.
Lopez: What happened in Qaraqosh?
Moore: ISIS systematically eliminated by murder, slavery, conversion, or displacement every single Christian from one of the world’s most ancient Christian cities on the Nineveh Plain and turned her ancient churches into mosques, except for those they flattened.
Lopez: Why does ISIS “prey on the innocence of children”? Could this be a sign of weakness?
Moore: For lots of reasons, two of which are: Because it inflicts more terror in the hearts of people, and because they believe they can eliminate “infidels” by eliminating the next generation.
Lopez: You are very adamant about how this is a family affair for Christians. You write: “They are going after my family, and they are going after them in a particularly insulting place — the very place where our devotion was born.” Have Christians missed this aspect, the particular obligation and “closeness” as Pope Francis puts it, that we ought to have with persecuted Christians?
Moore: Yes. We forget we would have no Christianity in the West at all if it weren’t for Christianity in the East. We don’t provide help for these people the way we hope someone would provide help for us.
Lopez: What about the Yazidis?
Moore: They are the only people ISIS hates more than Christians, and a little-known fact is that the Yazidis were safe only because of the Christians who were kind to them and helped provide for and protect them.
Lopez: If there’s one story that you could highlight to every American, what might it be? Who might you want to make a household name?
Moore: There are so many heartbreaking and inspiring stories, Kathryn. It’s why I had to put the book together.
Lopez: What hope have you seen?
Moore: I have seen wonderful Muslims and Christians working together as never before to combat their common enemy by providing food and shelter for those who have survived ISIS but now face the threat of a humanitarian emergency. I’ve seen so many Christians who’ve only raised their crosses higher, despite that their crosses nearly cost them their lives, and I’ve seen the best of faith in the face of this awful story of the worst of religion.
Lopez: What does life today look like for displaced Christians from Syria and Iraq?
Moore: Very, very bad. Sickness is everywhere because of the winter. The world is turning their backs on these people and not providing enough assistance. It’s the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, according to the U.N., and the world isn’t stepping up.
Lopez: Is there anything you would especially highlight to American/Western lawmakers?
Moore: They need to do more. Now. All of them. I’m making plans to send every member of Congress a copy of Defying ISIS.
Lopez: What can an individual American do to help?
MOORE: 1. Pray every day.
3. Educate yourself.
4. Keep unrelenting pressure on politicians.
5. Tell the stories of those in harm’s way.
6. Use #DEFYINGISIS to raise a storm on social media.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.