From Jonah to Jihad

The tragic fate of Iraqi Christians

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4 Sep 2014
From Jonah to Jihad

The world has been shocked beyond words by the inhuman carnage and brutality being exhibited by the Islamic State terror militia in Iraq over recent months, especially against the ancient Iraqi Christian community and other minorities.

The ISIS jihadists are carrying out public beheadings, hangings and crucifixions on a daily basis all across northwest Iraq, just like in eastern Syria. In village after village, its militiamen have swept in and executed the men, raped the women, and enslaved the children. These beastly tactics have led some world leaders, despite widespread war fatigue from the prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, to urge that the West re-engage militarily in Iraq.

Sadly, few of these global statesmen are citing the plight of the embattled Christians of the Middle East as sufficient cause for standing up to the jihadists. They are more worried about terror finding its way to Western shores, as it did in 9/11 or the London Underground bombings. The region's Christians have largely been abandoned, just as they have been for decades.

The rise and retreat of Middle Eastern Christianity

Centuries ago, the Middle East was once the cradle of Christianity, with roughly half its population adhering to the new faith. But this all changed when the Islamic conquest of the seventh century engulfed the Middle East and North Africa, and many Christians were forced to convert, submit, die or flee. Entire Christian communities were decimated, and the remnants forced into dhimmi status and payment of the humiliating jizya head tax for protection.

Nonetheless, many Christians in Arab lands clung to their faith and managed to survive under Muslim dominance. Even as recently as one hundred years ago, they still made up nearly 20% of the overall population of the Middle East. But with the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the many conflicts plaguing the region ever since, these proud, historic churches have been reduced to tiny remnants.

The outbreak of the Arab Spring accelerated this Christian exodus once again in recent years. As mass uprisings toppled repressive dictators throughout the region, radical Islamists stepped into the power vacuum and unleashed a brutal wave of persecution against vulnerable Christian communities.

Wherever radical Muslims seized power, they burned and bombed churches, provoked pogroms against Christian neighbourhoods, and abducted Christian women to force them into marrying Muslim men.

Several recent studies have confirmed that although Christianity is the largest religion in the world at 2.2 billion adherents, Christians are also the most widely persecuted religious group today, with the worst persecution occurring in Muslim lands. And the most acute situation for Mideast Christians right now is in Syria and Iraq.

Chaldean cauldron

Most Christians in Iraq and Syria belong to the ancient Assyrian or Chaldean churches and trace their spiritual heritage all the way back to the prophet Jonah, whose preaching in Nineveh some 700 years before Christ led to widespread repentance and belief in the God of the Bible. This made them more open to the Gospel when the Apostles Peter and Thomas showed up in the same region in the first century and founded these churches. Before long, the Chaldean bishopric oversaw a vast network of thousands of churches that stretched all the way from Turkey to China.

But much of this huge flock was lost in the upheavals of the Islamic invasion and other conquests of the region down through the centuries. In modern times, the slow, painful destruction of Chaldean Christianity has continued.

When the Great Powers divided up the former Ottoman holdings in Arab lands after World War One, many of the emerging Arab states began persecuting and chasing out the native Christians. According to a doctoral dissertation entitled The Death of a Nation published in 1968, the Christians of Iraq were pushed out into Syria, but Syria did not want them and chased them back into Iraq. Amid the chaos and bloodshed, over 1.5 million Assyrian Christians were killed.

This tragedy began repeating itself when the US-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. As that conflict morphed into a jihad against the "Crusader West", al-Qaida in Iraq gave Christians a deadline for agreeing to revive the jizya tax. When they refused, al-Qaida simultaneously bombed five churches on one Sunday alone.

The Islamic extremists were quite clear that their goal was to drive all Christians out of Iraq, and indeed the Iraqi Christian population has plummeted from around 1.5 million to as low as 300,000 over the past decade. Many escaped into neighbouring Syria, since they speak the same language, often have family ties and both follow the ancient liturgy and customs of the Assyrian Orthodox and Coptic churches.

But before long the Syrian civil war erupted and many Sunni jihadists joined the uprising against the Assad regime. One of their main targets was the Christian community, which had historically aligned with the minority Alawite rulers against the Sunni Arab majority in Syria. Meanwhile, Assad loyalists also began attacking the Christians for not taking up arms to defend the regime.

Caught between the two warring sides, the Christians inside Syria have faced horrendous conditions over recent years. Many of those who fled Iraq for Syria are now watching the atrocities back in Iraq and wondering where else could they go.

As ISIS forces in Syria have flooded across the porous border into Iraq this summer, they have gobbled up large swaths of the Sunni-dominated provinces in northwest Iraq. One region they targeted in recent weeks was the Nineveh Plain, along the Tigris River above Mosul.

This plateau was the last safe haven for Chaldean Christians left in the country, and the original homeland of this God-fearing people for the past 2,700 years. Yet in only a month's time, all its traditionally Christian towns have been emptied and the last 300,000 Christians left in the region have fled for their lives. Many have sought refuge in the Kurdish autonomous region to the east, while others now languish in refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey.

Enforcing 'pure' Islam

These tragic developments evidence a systematic campaign by the Islamic State and other radical Muslim factions to deliberately cleanse the region of its native Christian population, just as the Jewish minorities were forcibly uprooted following Israel's re-birth in 1948. The reason these Muslim 'purists' are driving out Christians lies in certain uniquely ruthless tenets of Islam they seek to enforce.

First, the Islamic faith is very territorial and divides the world into Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam, or the "House of War" versus the "House of Peace". This doctrine maintains that any territory which Muslims have conquered and subjected to shari'a law must be kept that way for future Muslim generations, while the rest of the world is a place of war (jihad) still to be conquered for Islam.

Secondly, shari'a law demands that Muslims must never befriend Christians or Jews, creating an inherent hostility towards these minority communities. This command comes straight from the Koran and thus can never be compromised.

For centuries, Muslims also were taught that because they followed a superior religion, they were a superior people to Christians and Jews and thus had a natural right to rule over them. In more recent times, it has been hard for many Muslims to give up this claim of superiority in exchange for modern democratic notions of equality and minority rights.

The national rebirth of Israel in 1948 challenged this mind-set of superiority, and did so in an area once subject to shari'a law. For many Muslims, this was a double blow and thus gave rise to a broader Arab rejection of Israel's existence that remains to this day.

Now, radical Muslim groups like ISIS do not want local Christians thinking they can also gain their freedom. To this end, they are being targeted for conversion, subjugation, eviction or eradication. Those are the only options, and they originate with none other than Muhammad himself.

In addition, Islam selectively borrows from biblical apocalyptic writings but adds a deadly twist. The Muslim faith teaches that Jesus indeed will return one day, but his mission will be to eradicate the heresy of Christianity and declare Islam as the one true faith and Muhammad as the true prophet. That is, he will come back as the destroyer of every last vestige of Christian belief.

So radical Islamist groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda believe they are just doing Allah's bidding by wiping out any Christian remnants in Muslim lands. They view this as simply part of their long-term battle against Christians, Jews and other non-Muslims in order to cleanse the world of infidels and ensure Islam reigns supreme.

The declaring of a "caliphate" by ISIS leader Imam Abu-bakr al-Baghdadi is an important step in their minds towards reaching their ultimate goal of Muslim domination of the world. Thus their threats to extend the rule of the Islamic State into Lebanon and Jordan must be taken seriously.

The fallacy of silence

One of the toughest questions to answer these days is why Western Christians are not speaking out more forcefully concerning the plight of our brethren in Muslim lands. This is a question often posed by Jews, who learned the hard lessons of remaining silent during the Holocaust.

Some American Jewish leaders actually contended at the time that demanding more action by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt to stop the Nazi genocide might actually make matters worse for European Jews. This proved a false assumption, and should not be repeated in the case of Middle East Christians. Things could not get any worse for them than what they are suffering under ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and many other jihadist movements.

We should listen to our Jewish friends. Silence simply does not work!

We must speak out on their behalf like never before. Please pray for our fellow Christians in the Middle East. And make your voice heard in your own countries that the slaughter and hemorrhaging of these ancient Christian communities must be stopped!

Please consider donating to the ICEJ's relief efforts on behalf of Iraqi Christians:



This article first appeared in the September-October 2014 edition of the ICEJ's Word from Jerusalem magazine. Read the latest Word from Jerusalem


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