Trudging around the ruined Church of St. Addai, in the empty Christian town of Karemlash, I saw clearly where radical Islamic extremism leads. This was only days before the attack on Westminster in London on March 22. With broken glass underfoot and the walls of the Church blackened after ISIS firebombed it, perhaps the most powerful symbol I came across in Karemlash was the defaced Cross. Everywhere, in all the churches and monasteries I visited, the Cross was defaced, scratched out, broken, or pierced with bullet holes.
ISIS had spray-painted the message “the Cross will be broken” on the walls of the rectory, and the pastor’s office door was booby-trapped, to kill him when he returned. As I walked around the Christian cemetery, it was clear to me that the followers of the Prophet had dug up the Christian graves. In one instance, I was told, they had beheaded one of the corpses. In the sacristy of the church, they had dug up the grave of one of the priests and thrown his body away. Even in death, the persecuted Christians of Iraq were not safe.
Surveying the horror and the eerily silent town, punctuated only by the distant thump of explosions in Mosul, nine miles away, I asked Father Thabet, the Chaldean Catholic priest who serves as pastor of St. Addai, whether all this destruction represented real Islam. “Yes,” he answered strongly, without a moment’s hesitation. “You wouldn’t be allowed to say that it the West,” I said smiling. He didn’t smile back.
Karemlash, a town of nearly 10,000 people, had been almost 100 percent Christian for centuries. The Iraqi Christian Church, both Catholic and Orthodox, traces its roots back to disciples of Jesus, sent out under the direction of the Apostles. For ill-educated Westerners, who imagine missionaries brought the Christian faith to the Middle East sometime last century, it can come as a bit of a shock to discover that the very opposite is the case. During the awful days of August 2014, as the Islamic State surged across the Nineveh Plain, the ancient Christian heartland of Iraq, the citizens of Karemlash fled, with only the clothes they were wearing.
Now, nearly three years later, the towns are “liberated,” but the houses that were not blown up are burned out and filled with booby traps. A few citizens have been returning, briefly, to check the condition of their houses — very few at the moment, as it is necessary to negotiate multiple checkpoints manned by local militias as well as by the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga. Unfortunately, some of these people are likely to be killed or maimed, because so far no one has removed the multiple booby traps. ISIS has been wickedly ingenious, putting devices even in television remote controls and vacuum cleaners.
On British TV, commenting on the awful events at Westminster Bridge and Parliament, a pundit described the impossibility of understanding “what drives a British born criminal to commit these acts.” The security services, he continued, were also struggling to come to terms with the motivation. The killer, Khalid Masood, was of course not a Quaker or a Christian Scientist. He was a convert to Islam. Religious conversion will never be understood by secularists. Religious faith is incomprehensible to them.
Running for president in 2008, Barack Obama said of Middle Americans — the “flyover nation,” as they are derisively known — that they “cling to guns or religion.” In that remark, he famously betrayed an attitude toward religious faith, particularly Christian faith, that is characteristic of the secular mindset that controls the media and the corridors of power in Europe and, increasingly, in the United States.
What drives a former criminal to commit acts of murder and destruction is exactly what drove Islamic militants to wreak the destruction that I witnessed in Iraq — it was my fourth visit there — and that continues to drive them all over the world. It is not, as we are relentlessly told by the experts, an “ideology” that must be “combated.” It is commitment to the faith of Islam, albeit a particular form of the faith.
Khalid Masood was a convert to Islam. At its Latin root, the word “convert” implies — as it does for converts to all faiths, including Christianity — a “turning about.” Introduced to a radical, but authentic, version of Islam in the dangerously unsupervised atmosphere of prison, the convert becomes a different person, obviously. How else could the conversion be real? Prison has been the incubator for Islamist terrorists across Europe.
Many secularists can’t understand — and can’t stand — Christianity but seem to have a bit of a soft spot for the “religion of peace.” The inability to comprehend the phenomenon of conversion and the power of religious faith leads them to imagine that radical Islamic extremism can be treated as other terrorist groups have been dealt with in the past.
The IRA (Irish Republican Army), the ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), and the ANC (African National Congress), for example, had territorial, nationalistic, or other specific aims. Even though governments always deny it, they negotiate with terrorist groups. That is not news to anyone. But there is no negotiating with the fire of a faith that has as a central tenet the necessity to convert the world, by the sword if necessary.
Moderate Muslim leaders must have the courage to speak out against this singular expression of the faith of Islam. Prisons must cease to be training grounds and finishing schools for radicalism, even if that means restricting and monitoring services and sermons.
As I left Iraq, an elderly priest, himself a refugee, gripped my hand and said in Arabic: “Be careful, be very careful. What has happened here will come to you.” Violence and intimidation is inimical to Christianity, despite the Crusades, the last resort of a secularist who has lost the argument. But it’s worth asking whether more conviction from Christian leaders that our faith is actually true might go some way toward converting hearts to the true religion of peace.
— Father Benedict Kiely, a Catholic priest, is the founder of Nasarean.org, which helps persecuted Christians in the Middle East.
- In Iraq, Christianity Won’t Disappear without a Fight
- Christians in Middle East Refuse Hatred, Even as They Face the Machete
- Lessons from a Persecuted Christian in the Middle East