Magazine | September 8, 2014, Issue

Iraq’s Christian Martyrs

Iraqi Christians pray during Sunday Mass at the Church of Virgin Mary, in Baghdad. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
Captive in Babylon, suffering worse than exile

Legend has it that Abgar V, “the Black,” ruler of the small Mesopotamian kingdom of Osroene, was incurably ill. Shortly after 33 a.d., a wanderer came to Edessa, where the king had his throne — a wanderer anointed by the miracle-worker, Jesus, who had recently died and, some said, risen from the grave. The stranger’s name was Addai, or Thaddeus, numbered among the Seventy and sent by the Apostle Thomas, the twin, the doubter. Addai worked a great miracle: He healed the king. Abgar converted to Christianity, as did his kingdom — whereby Christianity came to Iraq.

Not quite 2,000 years later, Addai’s church is in danger. In 1987 there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq. There remain today 300,000 — perhaps fewer. In a millennia-long existence that has borne Islamic conquest, European colonialism, and Saddam Hussein’s ruthless despotism, following American “liberation” Iraqi Christians are in greater danger today than ever before.

“There’s no comparison between Iraq now and [under Hussein]. Things are the most difficult they have ever been for Christians. Probably ever in history. They’ve never known it like now.” Reverend Canon Andrew White, vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, made those comments to 60 Minutes in late 2007 — that is, shortly after the U.S. troop surge that restabilized Iraq, a year before the election of Barack Obama, and several years before the withdrawal of American forces or the rise of the “Islamic State,” the jihadist organization, also known as ISIS and ISIL, that has conquered swaths of Syria and Iraq in recent months. The Islamic State has only brought to the world’s attention the elimination of Iraq’s Christian community that has been under way for decades.

Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator, not averse to “cleansing” troublesome elements from Iraq’s population, but in a country rife with sectarian violence, Hussein pacified a faction-prone people by imposing a generally secular despotism. “Under Saddam,” Miami University professor Adeed Dawisha told PBS’s NewsHour, “it was understood that if you don’t interfere in politics, then you are provided with a good life.” Taking “good life” relatively, Iraqi Christians were able to become professionals — doctors, lawyers, engineers — and to attain roles in government. Tariq Aziz, Hussein’s second-in-command, was a member of the Chaldean Catholic Church.

Christians in the Middle East recognized that this was likely to be better than any alternative. Thus when rebels toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and threatened Syria’s Bashar Assad, both of whom had pursued similar secular policies to pacify their turbulent nations, Egyptian and Syrian Christians opposed regime change. Better teapot tyrants than Islamist theocrats.

When coalition forces toppled Hussein in 2003, they also removed the institutional pressures tamping down sectarian violence. In August 2004, bombs exploded as Christians at churches in Mosul, Baghdad, and Kirkuk left Sunday-evening Mass. The coordinated attack killed twelve and wounded 70 more. Despite the presence of American forces in the country, jihadists regularly attacked monasteries, convents, and churches — 59 Assyrian congregations between June 2004 and July 2009, according to the Assyrian International News Agency.

Clergy, as Iraq’s most visible Christians, were particular targets. In October 2006, partly as a reprisal against comments about Islam made by Pope Benedict XVI, Boulos Iskander, a Syrian Orthodox priest, was kidnapped in Mosul. The kidnappers did not wait to see if his congregation would meet their ransom demands. Iskander was discovered beheaded, his arms and legs also cut off.

In June 2007, Ragheed Ganni — a Chaldean Catholic priest and secretary to Paulos Faraj Rahho, archbishop of Mosul — was accosted, along with three subdeacons, after celebrating evening Mass at Mosul’s Holy Spirit Chaldean Church. His assailants demanded that the group convert to Islam. When they refused, they were executed. Nine months later, in late February 2008, Archbishop Rahho was kidnapped. From the trunk of his kidnappers’ vehicle, he called Holy Spirit Church and ordered his parishioners not to pay the ransom. His body was found in a shallow grave two weeks later.

In the autumn of 2008, a series of attacks began against parishioners in Mosul, who for several months had received threats, via phone, mail, and messages left on doorsteps, to convert, leave the city, or die. By the end of October, 14 Christians were dead and 13,000 had fled into the Nineveh plains, northeast of the city. Nine more Christians were killed in November — including two nuns — and another 3,000 fled. Similar events marked January 2009.

Many of those who fled Mosul returned in the following months. Six years later, they are gone once again, fled back into the Nineveh plains and into Iraqi Kurdistan, pursued by the Islamic State. The terrorist organization is obliterating Iraqi Christianity. On Sunday, June 15, 2014, no Mass was celebrated in Mosul for the first time in 1,600 years.

#page#The Islamic State’s barbaric tactics — mass execution, beheading, crucifixion — and its swift conquest of a large area in northern Syria and northern Iraq have occasioned much astonishment. But the Islamic State is not new.

Shortly after evening Mass began on October 31, 2010, gunmen stormed Baghdad’s Our Lady of Salvation Chaldean Catholic Church. They fired at lights, sacramental images, and parishioners. “All of you are infidels,” they cried, according to survivors interviewed by the Guardian; “we will go to paradise if we kill you, and you will go to hell.” For three hours the kidnappers held 160 worshipers hostage. After Iraqi security forces forced their way inside, engaging the gunmen in a firefight, 41 hostages, including two priests, were dead. A group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility.

In 2003, al-Qaeda in Iraq had formed, with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as its head. Zarqawi’s tactics — beheadings uploaded to jihadist websites, bombings of Shiite mosques, and more — drew criticism from al-Qaeda higher-ups, who contended that his methods were alienating Iraqi Sunnis. When Zarqawi was killed by an American air strike in 2006, his group rechristened itself the Islamic State of Iraq. It continued to fight, but the support of the Sunni community evaporated.

In May 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over the group. Spotting an opportunity for expansion, he established a jihadist organization, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), in Syria to combat the Assad regime, which by mid 2011 was embroiled in civil war. When Baghdadi changed ISI to ISIS — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — to formally consolidate his power, JN’s leader balked, swearing allegiance instead to al-Qaeda’s global chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In February 2014, al-Qaeda officially cut all ties with ISIS — now the Islamic State, of which Baghdadi is caliph — citing its tactics.

Persecuted first by al-Qaeda, now by al-Qaeda’s enemy, Christians in Iraq have recognized that theirs is one situation in which the enemies of enemies are not friends. Iraq’s Christians face danger from nearly every side. Indeed, following the 2003 invasion, many Iraqi Christians fled to Syria, only to find themselves fleeing back into Iraq in 2011.

Now even those in the Nineveh plains are in danger. With the Islamic State pushing into the area, Christians are fleeing farther east. Towns and villages have been abandoned. Qaraqosh, home to 50,000 Christians, is empty. Refugees are pouring into Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northeastern Iraq headed by the Kurdistan Regional Government, which is largely outside the control of the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The region is defended by the Peshmerga, a fearsome brigade of Kurdish fighters, but in the face of the Islamic State’s firepower — much of it leftover American matériel — they have been forced to retreat from defensive positions along a 600-mile front. More than 100,000 displaced Christians are now in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. Islamic State fighters sit 20 miles away.

The U.S. has carried out air strikes against Islamic State positions and begun directly arming the Kurds, but the Obama administration has already forsworn “boots on the ground.” At an emergency meeting in mid August, the foreign ministers of the European Union, too, approved sending arms to Kurdish fighters, but the agreement does not require any member nations to do so. Meanwhile, Christians in Erbil and elsewhere are running low on what little supplies they have. God has not forsaken them, but Christian refugees in Iraq grow more certain each day that the world has.

Among those who have fled to Erbil is the family of Andrew, a five-year-old boy baptized in Baghdad, by Reverend Canon Andrew White at St. George’s. The family named the boy after the vicar. In early August, White learned that Andrew, whose family had been in Qaraqosh, had been murdered by Islamic State militants — cut in half.

That is the reality of daily life for those Christians remaining in Iraq. By the waters of Babylon, they are weeping once more.

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