THE CAPTURE on Thursday of the northern Iraqi town of Qaraqosh by Islamic State (IS) fighters, and the subsequent flight of thousands of Christians northwards to Kurdish-controlled territory, dealt another serious blow to Middle Eastern Christianity and have helped to elevate the Iraq crisis to a new level.
The United States' President, Barack Obama, on Thursday night authorised the use of air strikes against IS forces to protect both Christians and thousands of Yazidis trapped on Mount Sinjar. The Yazidis, a small minority community whose religion incorporates beliefs and traditions from a variety of faiths, face starvation if help fails to arrive soon.
Mr Obama said that IS had "called for the systematic destruction of the entire Yazidi people, which would constitute genocide. So these innocent people are faced with a horrible choice: descend the mountain and be slaughtered, or stay and slowly die of thirst and hunger." He said that the Islamists had been "especially barbaric towards religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis." Air strikes would also be used to halt an IS advance towards the Kurdish city of Irbil where American diplomatic staff are based, Mr Obama said.
In a statement on Friday, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that IS was "violat[ing] brutally people's right to freedom of religion and belief".
He added: "We must not forget that this is part of an evil pattern around the world where Christians and other minorities are being killed and persecuted for their faith." Human rights abuses must be documented and prosecuted, and countries in the West, including the UK, should take in refugees, Archbishop Welby said.
Horror stories of violent persecution of Christians was going on elsewhere, he added, citing Syria, South Sudan, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic. "Those suffering such appalling treatment in Iraq are especially in my prayers at this time."
Canon Andrew White of St George's, Baghdad, speaking to the BBC on Thursday night from northern Iraq, said that the international community needed to take seriously the needs of the Christian community in the country "so they are not left on the side." Asked if he could envisage a day when he would advise his own congregation to leave Iraq, Canon White replied: "I have always said to our people 'I'm not going to leave you, don't you leave me.' Now I can't say that any longer. If I tell them not to leave I'm saying: 'You've got to be prepared to die for your faith'."
The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, said in a statement on Friday that the Government should lead efforts to provide humanitarian aid to struggling minorities in Iraq.
"I have followed with deep sadness the unfolding disaster," he said. "This is a persecution of immense proportions ... It is imperative that the international community ensure the physical protection of all communities in Iraq [and] their human rights including the right to religious freedom."
The events ,of recent days will inevitably mean a further exodus of Christians from Iraq. Whether or not Britain should offer sanctuary to some of these refugees remains a matter of contention. The Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, told the Church Times on Tuesday that he had not yet received a response from the Government to his appeal that Britain should make such an offer.
The Bishops of Manchester and of Worcester, Rt Revd David Walker and Dr John Inge, made similar calls on the Government to help Iraqi Christians in an Observer article last Sunday, although the three churchmen are not part of a co-ordinated campaign.
Bishop Baines said that he was "not surprised, but disappointed" at the lack of an official response. He said that the appeal through the media was only the first step in efforts to persuade the government to allow some Iraqi Christians to come here. The next step would involve direct contact with senior figures, including the Prime Minister.
Asked if it was realistic for the government to allow Iraqis to enter Britain at a time when immigration is such a sensitive political topic, Bishop Baines said: "we are being very careful not to get caught up in the immigration debate. We're not talking about a huge number. Many will want to stay in Iraq, and there are already many in the Kurdish areas." The Bishop's view is that Iraqis coming here could fall under the category of vulnerable migrants.
Bishop Baines said that he realised that in speaking out in this way the Bishops were putting extra pressure on the Government at a time when it is facing "an impossible task in trying to deal with appalling situations around the world. But this is a very particular and serious issue of concern."
In his comments at the weekend, Bishop Baines said: "We have a tradition of offering sanctuary to people who are oppressed, and it's part of the Christian heritage of this country and the law we have established that puts an obligation on us.
We also have an obligation to at least raise with the Government the possibility that we should be offering sanctuary to Christians in Iraq who have been effectively expelled under the threat of death."
Bishop Walker said: "We would be failing to fulfil our obligations were we not to offer sanctuary. Having intervened so recently and extensively in Iraq, we have, even more than other countries, a moral duty in the UK. Given the vast amounts of money that we spent on the war in Iraq, the tiny cost of bringing some people fleeing for their lives to this country and allowing them to settle - and who, in due course, would be an asset to our society - would seem to be minuscule."
Bishop Inge told the Observer that he "would be very disturbed if the Government refused to do anything. The situation in Iraq is absolutely horrendous. It would sit very ill at ease with our values if nothing were to be offered. I am disappointed nothing has transpired so far."
Weeks before the fall of Qaraqosh, an estimated 30,000 Iraqi Christians fled from Mosul and the surrounding area after large areas of the country were taken over by Islamists, who later proclaimed the territory under their control a caliphate. Christians and other minority religious groups were given the choice of converting to Islam, paying a protection tax or being put to the sword (News, 25 July).
A group of faith leaders in Wales, including Archbishop Dr Barry Morgan, on Wednesday issued a joint statement condemning IS's persecution of Christians. "We are concerned," the statement said, "that places such as Mosul, with a historic Christian population that represents centuries of peaceful co-existence between Christians and Muslims, Christians are now fleeing for fear of their lives. We utterly condemn IS and their violent and reprehensible actions. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Christians of Iraq and all those of all faiths in the Middle East.