Churchmen warn of end of Christianity in Iraq

01 August 2014

REUTERS

Faith in the open: Demonstrators from a number of  religious traditions join in a protest against the militants of the Islamic State in Arbil, north of Baghdad, on Thursday of last week

Faith in the open: Demonstrators from a number of  religious traditions join in a protest against the militants of the Islamic State in Arbil, ...

THE apparent inability of the Iraqi military to dislodge Islamists who have imposed an increasingly proscriptive Caliphate on a large part of the country is raising fears that Christianity could disappear in the area altogether.

The Chaplain of St George's, Baghdad, Canon Andrew White, told the BBC that "things are desperate; our people are disappearing. . . Are we seeing the end of Christianity? We are committed, come what may. We will keep going to the end, but it looks as though the end could be very near." Canon White said that Iraqi Christians were "in grave danger. There are literally Christians living in the desert and on the street. They have nowhere to go."

The Archbishop of Sydney, Dr Glenn Davies, echoed these views, saying that it was "an outrage that a community established in the early centuries of the Christian era should face expulsion from their own land, simply for their faith". The Australian government, the international community, and the UN, he said, "must not stand by while such persecution continues unabated".

In the view of Human Rights Watch, in a statement in mid-July, the group Islamic State (IS) "seems intent on wiping out all traces of minority groups from areas it now controls in Iraq. No matter how hard its leaders and fighters try to justify these heinous acts as religious devotion, they amount to nothing less than a reign of terror."

The Islamic State has already imposed strict rules on non-Muslims, having told Christians in Mosul that they faced death if they failed either to convert to Islam or to agree to pay a protection tax (News, 25 July). This threat has prompted all Christians there to flee.

Since then, more measures have been imposed in areas under IS control. Women have been ordered to veil their faces completely. An IS statement said that the move would not restrict a woman's freedom, but rather "prevent her from falling into humiliation and vulgarity, or to be a theatre for the eyes of those who are looking". Shopkeepers have been told to put veils over both male and female faces of mannequins in store windows.

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In a separate move, IS fighters blew up a revered religious shrine in Mosul which is traditionally regarded as the burial place of the Prophet Jonah. A mosque was built in recent times on an archaeological site dating back to the eighth century BC. People in the mosque were ordered out, before the whole edifice was destroyed. The story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale appears in both the Qur'an and the Bible.

The most senior Christian cleric in Iraq, the Chaldean Patriarch of Babylon and Archbishop of Baghdad, the Most Revd Louis Raphael Sako, has written to the secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, asking him to put pressure on the international community to provide more assistance to Christians and other minorities in Iraq who have been targeted by Islamic militants. "The instability in Iraq threatens the entire region," the Patriarch writes. "The instability in the region is worrisome because of the increasing attacks mounted on Christians and minorities."

The Iraqi Christian community, Patriarch Sako continues, has suffered a "disproportionate share of hardship caused by sectarian conflicts, terrorist attacks, migration, and now even ethnic cleansing: the militants want to wipe out the Christian community."

Mr Ban, during a visit to Iraq last week, condemned the "systematic and despicable" persecution of minority populations by IS and associated armed groups, saying that any systematic attack targeting the civilian population because of their ethnic background or religious beliefs might well constitute a crime against humanity.

The Church of England's foreign-policy adviser, Dr Charles Reed, has called on the British Government to do more to help Iraqi Christians to cope with isolation resulting from Islamist threats. Writing in his blog this week, Dr Reed said that, in seeking to look beyond the Mosul tragedy, "acknowledging the deep psychological trauma that has been inflicted on the affected families and communities would be a good place to start. At the moment they feel abandoned. Statements by religious leaders, and ecumenical and interfaith bodies all help, as does the series of prayers released this week by the Archbishop of York."

Dr Reed writes that it would be "helpful if the British Government and others followed suit. It is pretty shocking that the ethnic cleansing going on in parts of northern Iraq is happening in full sight with little or no condemnation.

"Last week, the situation featured as no more than an aside in a speech by the UK Ambassador to the UN. There has yet to be any official statement on the subject by the new Foreign Secretary."

Dr Reed continued, however: "We shouldn't allow our concern with the fate of the Christians of Mosul to blind us to the tragedy experienced by other minority groups - Shia, Shabaks, Turkmen Yazidi, and others - who are being persecuted on the grounds of their religion and ethnicity."

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