Last Sunday, for the first time in 1600 years, no mass was celebrated in Mosul. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized Iraq’s second largest city on June 10, causing most Christians in the region to flee in terror, in new kinship with the torment of Christ crucified on the cross. The remnant of Mosul’s ancient Christian community, long inhabitants of the place where many believe Jonah to be buried, now faces annihilation behind ISIS lines. Those who risk worship must do so in silence, praying under new Sharia regulations that have stilled every church bell in the city.
The media has largely ignored the horrifying stories that are emerging from Mosul. On June 23, the Assyrian International News Agency reported that ISIS terrorists entered the home of a Christian family in Mosul and demanded that they pay the jizya (a tax on non-Muslims). According to AINA, “When the Assyrian family said they did not have the money, three ISIS members raped the mother and daughter in front of the husband and father. The husband and father was so traumatized that he committed suicide.”
Although few reports from ISIS-occupied Iraq can be corroborated, the group’s record of torture chambers, public executions, and crucifixions lends credibility to nightmarish accounts from the ground. Since the fall of Mosul, a litany of evils has replaced the liturgies of the Christians there: a young boy ripped from the arms of his parents as they ran from the ISIS advance and shot before their eyes, girls killed for not wearing the hijab.
Small wonder that since the fall of Mosul, tens of thousands of defenseless civilians have fled the ISIS onslaught, including the region’s Christians, whose presence on the Nineveh plains dates back to the earliest centuries of Christianity. Most have left their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Steven and his wife Babyl, two Christian refugees now living in Erbil, left their home in Hamdaniya, in the Mosul area, which ISIS plagued for years before its recent conquest. In late 2013, ISIS sent Steven a letter that threatened him with beheading unless he left the city. At first, unwilling to let extremists uproot his life, he ignored the warning. But ISIS gunmen shot at him several times, their bullets accomplishing what their letter could not: persuading Steven and his wife—then newly pregnant—to flee to Jordan.
Despite the grave risk, the young couple returned to Hamdaniya in early June. Babyl had taken ill, and Steven, unable to find work in Jordan, desperately needed money for her medical care.
Several days later ISIS conquered Mosul. For a second time, Steven and Babyl, now eight months pregnant, fled their home. Their harrowing escape to Erbil has ended in a precarious and hardscrabble existence. They fear for their unborn child, a baby girl who will be born into a family with no belongings, no money, and little food. Steven summed up the situation at the end of an email: “I just want to get out of this hell.”
This human tragedy has its foundation in political instability. The idea of Iraq was conceived of by foreign policy elite in London; the last to cling to it are the foreign policy elite in Washington. As the Obama administration and State Department scramble to save Iraq, a reality that many on the ground have known for years is coming into focus: Iraq is falling apart. In the north, Kurdistan—a nation that may not be found on any western map—holds the greatest hope for those who seek the most fundamental freedoms. Since 2003, Christians have been fleeing to Kurdistan’s Nineveh plain. The Sunni Kurds, who tend to be secular in their politics, have offered them a helping hand in recent years.
As the horrors unfolded in Iraq, back in Washington, in the briefing room of a presidential hopeful, an Iraqi bishop made a desperate plea for help via phone as a delegation of Iraqi Christians seeking greater support for the Kurds. “We have no food, no petrol, no [means] to protect ourselves. Where are America’s values? Where is our dignity?” Many in Washington are keen to see greater Kurdish autonomy, viewing them as the prudent third way between the Sunni states that have supported Islamist militants (Turkey, Saudi, Qatar) and Shia Iran and its puppets. The Kurds represent not only the best hope for an American ally in an increasingly Islamist-dominated region, but also the best hope for the survival of Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East.
Just a few years ago, no one could have imagined a militant Islamist emirate stretching across the Fertile Crescent, threatening to expand into neighboring countries like Lebanon and Jordan. Today, it is difficult to imagine how ISIS will be defeated. Iraq's post-colonial borders have collapsed over the past two weeks as ISIS has consolidated and expanded an emirate from the Euphrates to within striking distance of Bagdad. Now it commands territory nearly as vast as that of either the Iraqi or Syrian governments. Barbarism and strategy are not mutually exclusive. ISIS will likely consolidate its gains near Baghdad, waiting for either the Maliki government to crumble or for the Shia militias to leave the capital.
The crisis of Iraqi Christianity precipitated by ISIS’s advance, which is critical in areas like Mosul, is the latest chapter in the dramatic decline of Christianity in the Middle East. Muslim (let alone Islamist) homogeneity in the region would be a cultural catastrophe with global consequences and national security implications for America. Lack of attention in the Western press is an indictment of a journalistic and political establishment that is mostly indifferent to one of the great human rights crises of our time.
The story of Christianity in Iraq is long and has entered its most difficult chapter to date. But ISIS will not have the last word. Although the future appears bleak, Steven and Babyl hope for the day when they can return home—the day when the church bells of Mosul can ring out once more.