Convert, pay or die. Five years ago, that was the “choice” the Islamic State (ISIS) gave to Christians in Mosul, then Iraq’s third-largest city: either embrace Islam, submit to a religious tax or face the sword. ISIS then marked Christian houses with the Arabic letter ن (N), the first letter of the Arabic word “Nasrani” (“Nazarene,” or “Christian”) . Christians could often take no more than the clothes on their back and flee a city that had been home to Christians for 1,700 years.
Two years ago, ISIS was defeated in Mosul and its Caliphate crushed. The extremists, however, had succeeded in “cleansing” the Christians. Before the rise of ISIS, there were more than 15,000 Christians there. In July 2019, the Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, disclosed that only about 40 Christians have come back. Not long ago, Mosul had “Christmas celebrations without Christians“.
This cultural genocide, thanks to the indifference of Europeans and many Western Christians more worried about not appearing “Islamophobic” than defending their own brothers, sadly worked. Father Ragheed Ganni, for instance, a Catholic priest from Mosul, had just finished celebrating mass in his church when Islamists killed him. In one of his last letters, Ganni wrote: “We are on the verge of collapse”. That was in 2007 — almost ten years before ISIS eradicated the Christians of Mosul. “Has the world ‘looked the other way’ while Christians are killed?” the Washington Postasked. Definitely.
Traces of a lost Jewish past have also resurfaced in Mosul, where a Jewish community had also lived for thousands of years. Now, 2,000 years later, both Judaism and Christianity have effectively been annihilated there. That life is over. The newspaper La Vie collected the testimony of a Christian, Yousef (the name has been changed), who fled in the night of August 6, 2014, just before ISIS arrived. “It was a real exodus”, Yousef said.
“The road was black with people, I did not see either the beginning or the end of this procession. There were children were crying, families dragging small suitcases. Old men were on the shoulders of their sons. People were thirsty, it was very hot. We have lost all that we have built for life and nobody fought for us”.
Some communities, such as the tiny Christian pockets in Mosul, are almost certainly lost forever”, wrote two American scholars in Foreign Policy.
“We are on the precipice of catastrophe, and unless we act soon, within weeks, the tiny remnants of Christian communities in Iraq may be mostly eradicated by the genocide being committed against Christians in Iraq and Syria”.
In Mosul alone, 45 churches were vandalized or destroyed. Not a single one was spared. Today there is only one church open in the city. ISIS apparently also wanted to destroy Christian history there. They targeted the monastery of Saints Behnam and Sarah, founded in the fourth century. The monastery had survived the seventh century Islamic conquest and subsequent invasions, but in 2017, crosses were destroyed, cells were looted, and statues of the Virgin Mary were beheaded. The Iraqi priest, Najeeb Michaeel, who saved 850 manuscripts from the Islamic State, was ordained last January as the new Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul.
ISIS, together with Al Nusra, an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Syria, followed the same pattern, when its militants attacked the Christian town of Maaloula. “They scarred the faces of the saints, of the Christ, they shattered the statues”, Father Toufic Eid recently told the Vatican agency, Sir.
“The altars, the iconostases and the baptismal font were torn to pieces. But the thing that struck me most was the burning of baptism registers. It is as if they wanted to erase our faith”.
In the cemetery of the church of St. George in Karamlesh, a village east of Mosul, Isis dug up a body and beheaded it, apparently only because it was a Christian.
The fate of Mosul’s Christians is the similar to those elsewhere in Iraq. “The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has several categories to define the danger of extinction that various species face today”, writes Benedict Kiely, the founder of Nasarean.org, which helps the persecuted Christians of the Middle East.
“Using a percentage of population decline, the categories range from ‘vulnerable species’ (a 30-50 per cent decline), to ‘critically endangered’ (80-90 per cent) and finally to extinction. The Christian population of Iraq has shrunk by 83 per cent, putting it in the category of ‘critically endangered'”.
Shamefully, the West has been and still seems to be completely indifferent to the fate of Middle Eastern Christians. As the Syriac Orthodox archbishop of Mosul, Metropolitan Nicodemus, put it:
“I don’t believe in these two words [human rights], there are no human rights. But in Western countries, there are animal rights. In Australia they take care of frogs…. Look upon us as frogs, we’ll accept that — just protect us so we can stay in our land.
“Those people are the same ones who came here many years ago. And we accepted them. We are the original people in this land. We accepted them, we opened the doors for them, and they push us to be minorities in our land, then refugees in our land. And this will be with you if you don’t wake up.”
“Christianity in Iraq, one of the oldest Churches, if not the oldest Church in the world, is perilously close to extinction”, Bashar Warda, Archbishop of Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, remarked in London in May. “Those of us who remain must be ready to face martyrdom”. Warda went on to accuse Britain’s leaders of “political correctness” over the issue for fear of being accused of “Islamophobia.” “Will you continue to condone this never-ending, organised persecution against us?” Warda asked. “When the next wave of violence begins to hit us, will anyone on your campuses hold demonstrations and carry signs that say ‘We are all Christians?'”
These Christians seem to have gained space on our television screens and newspapers only at the cost of their blood, their disappearance, their suffering. Their tragedy illuminates our moral suicide. As the French-Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf noted: “That is the great paradox: one accuses the Occident of wanting to impose its values, but the real tragedy is its inability to transmit them…. Sometimes we get the impression that Westerners have once and for all appropriated Christianity… and that they say to themselves: We are the Christians, and the rest is only an archaeological remainder destined to disappear. Threats to pandas cause more emotion” than threats to the extinction of the Christians in the Middle East.
Giulio Meotti, Cultural Editor for Il Foglio, is an Italian journalist and author.
The Extinction of Christians in the Middle East
by Giulio Meotti
August 18, 2019 at 5:00 am