THE liberation of Bartella, a small town ten miles from the Islamic State stronghold in Mosul, has brought a glimmer of hope for Iraqi Christians who have been exiled in their own country since IS fighters took control of large tracts of Iraq in 2014. It was heart-warming that the ringing of church bells and the erection of a crude cross on the roof of a damaged church were the most evident signs of the town’s restoration to its former citizens. The resolve of the handful of Christians who managed to reach the town is striking: proud of their heritage as the oldest religious community in the region, they have expressed their determination to rebuild and repair what the malicious IS fighters sought to destroy.
They will need prayer and practical support. A multi-agency report, Hope for the Middle East, quotes a Syrian church leader: “Please do not speak about us as a beleaguered minority; we consider ourselves as part of the silent majority that wants to live together peacefully in the region.” It is a reminder that, before the rise of Islamist extremism, the different religious communities in Iraq, Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, and Christian, co-existed in peace. Christian holy places were often revered by Muslims; priests and imams alike were respected, despite the larger, darker forces that swept through the region. Whether the broken bowl can be repaired remains to be seen. For the time being, there is no peace-loving majority able to recreate Iraq as it used to be, nor any great desire to unite communities that see their destiny apart. Instead, there are fearful religious and ethnic minorities, many of whom cannot return to the place of their birth. Homes have been destroyed, or appropriated by the majority community in a town or region. The Christians, who lack the numerical strength and the desire to form an autonomous region, are in danger of falling between the tectonic plates of the shifting Iraqi society.
A straw in the wind was the law passed in Baghdad last Saturday which bans the sale of alcohol, customarily a trade run for and by Christians, and embraced by secular Muslims. Christians and Sunnis alike are troubled by the dominance of hardline Shias in the Iraqi government. Thus the joy of liberation from IS is tempered by concerns about the political and religious forces that will take their place.
At the checkout
WE CONTINUE to be bemused by the growing importance of Hallowe’en in the calendar. Admittedly, its garish costumes and web-based accoutrements keep Christmas goods at bay for a few more weeks, but this is a small gain. Fortunately, the poppy-wearing season has extended in a similar fashion, so that solemnity is restored immediately Hallowe’en is over. It seems, none the less, that the impact of an event or a season on our culture correlates to the amount of merchandise shoppers can be persuaded to buy. Is this the time for the Church to start working on its Easter range?