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, ISIS has been ousted, and a measure of stability has returned to the region.
With ISIS defeated, 40,000 Christians have returned to their ancient homeland, repopulating nine historically Christian towns. Overall, about 250,000 remain in Iraq, down from 1.5 million in 2003, on the eve of the U.S. invasion. For the moment, they are safe, but Sunni Muslims and Iran-backed militias have designs on their land and property.
The U.S. has pledged to channel significant USAID funding to faith-based organizations on the ground that help to oversee the rebuilding of homes, schools, and hospitals as well as of water and electricity infrastructures and to make vital repairs. 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. On the fifth anniversary of the ISIS invasion of northern Iraq, Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Catholic archdiocese of Erbil, Kurdistan, stresses that “Christianity in Iraq is perilously close to extinction.” The Church in Erbil has cared for the exiled families from the Nineveh Plains for almost three years. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Warda 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 beginning of Islam in the seventh century, whether Christians and other non-Muslims “were to be tolerated and to what degree” depended on the “judgment and whim” of particular rulers, Warda explains. In the end, Christians were tolerated or not “depending upon the intensity of the prevailing jihadi spirit.” The archbishop notes that even during the Arab Golden Age, from the eighth to the 14th centuries, 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 Warda, is whether “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, recent alarming reports have circulated that the Iraqi parliament is due to vote on a provision to appoint mullahs as judges, with the prospect that sharia law will override 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, “our humanity gives us no rights,” Warda contends, adding that the Iraqi constitution spells out that Christians and other minorities “are lesser citizens.” As a result, the establishment and full functioning of a “civic order” is impeded.
That civic order is the foundation for peace and prosperity for all people, he 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, U.S. 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 representatives of non-governmental organizations who are all committed to stand up for religious freedom, a fundamental human right and a cornerstone of the civic order extolled by the archbishop.
At the ministerial, Secretary Pompeo announced the formation of the 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 the alliance to work, it must do more than issue wish lists and policy proposals. Members must be ready to use diplomatic pressure and sanctions to nudge recalcitrant nations to take action.
Will the West live up to its high calling and stand by persecuted Christians and other religious 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. “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.”