According to the latest available figures, no fewer than two million Iraqis, many of them Christians, have been chased out of their homes by the militiamen of the Islamic State, and now their tragic plight may fall into oblivion amid the indifference of international public opinion, especially in the West.
But there are men who will not allow this to happen—notably two senior prelates of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic hierarchy, Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako and Auxiliary Bishop of Bagdad Mar Shlemon Warduni, who are decrying the terrible predicament of their displaced flock in numerous conferences, meetings, and interviews around Europe.
At a meeting in Vienna of the King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue, Patriarch Sako denounced the silence of the world’s Islamic leaders in the face of the “barbaric” violence of the Islamic State, which included thousands of innocent people killed, women enslaved, and families driven from their homes: He found it “shocking” that these leaders, at best, “only denounced these acts by shy and helpless statements, showing the absence of a real role in raising the awareness of the public about the impending danger of ISIS in the name of religion.” The extremism embodied by the Islamic State, he went on, is “a plague on the human race.” The Patriarch called on Islamic scholars to “refute their arguments with case law and expose their criminal practices.”
Bishop Warduni has under his pastoral jurisdiction the province of Anbar, an area largely occupied by the Islamic State. I interviewed him in January of this year.
Could you briefly describe the situation of Christians after the establishment of the Islamic State? Are Christians actually being persecuted?
Bishop Warduni: The situation is terrible, a real disaster for Christians and for Iraq at large. The Islamic State has branded us as infidels. Christians were forced to leave Mosul and their villages in the plain of Nineveh. At first the Islamic State dismissed government officials and ordered rations of food no longer to be distributed to Christians. Then they said that Christians should either leave or pay the protection tax (jizya) for non-Muslims. Eventually, Christians were threatened with death if they did not abandon their homes, with the only alternative being to convert and thus save their lives if they wanted to stay. In short, the IS is leaving four options to us Christians: pay the jizya, go away, be killed, or become Muslim. Our future is therefore rather bleak: Attacks, car bombs, and personal, denominational, and party interests are prevailing as the spreading of the Caliphate is proving particularly negative for Christians. It’s clear now that the IS leaders are determined to uproot us from this land and deprive us of any rights, even though we Christians have been living here since time immemorial. In the city of Mosul any Christian prayer has been prohibited for months now. Wouldn’t you call all of this persecution? In a nutshell, we were uprooted from our land and do not know what the future has in store for us.
We have heard about atrocities, like decapitations and crucifixions.
Yes, and you can also include children dying of thirst, women sold on the market, and mothers forced to give birth in public. But these atrocities are hitting not only Christians but Yazidis even more. Many of their children have died of thirst or malnutrition, and their women were sold on the market to trample their dignity. In the cities conquered by the Islamic State, all Christians who were working in public service have been chased out. The Christians were then forced to paint the letter N on their homes and businesses, which, after a few days, were confiscated. The N stands for Nazara (“Nazarenes”), the derogatory Arabic term indicating Christians. Our women and our children are forced to sleep outdoors, and recently in an IS-controlled area a Christian woman delivered a child in a public park. All the more worrying is the situation in these winter months, with hundreds of thousands of people left without a home, a school, medicine. Because of the cold and rain many are dying or most certainly will die.
In previous interviews and statements, you spoke of genocide and the gates of hell having been thrown open, with all the devils unleashed. You urged the West to wake up, since it may soon feel the result of its virtual inaction, tragically shown by what happened in Paris in early January. What should the international community do?
Above all, I am asking for the flow of weapons and money to these terrorists to be stopped. I do not know where they are coming from, but you have got to stop them. Enough weapons; enough money! International action is needed, as broad as possible, to protect our rights and those of the other minorities concerned. Our first concern is that human rights be respected, and our second is that we would like to practice our faith safely and freely. The threat posed by the Islamic State concerns all: Shi’ites, Sunnis, and Yazidis, a minority destroyed. Young people and children have been killed or buried alive. What kind of religion is this, what kind of humanity or culture? In the Koran, Allah is described as forgiving and merciful. Is it merciful to murder children? These are crimes against humanity. Europe and America have made two wars against one enemy, Saddam Hussein, and now that we have not one but thousands of enemies in Iraq, the West is hardly lifting a finger. Where are the heads of state of Europe and America? And where is the United Nations, which is always speaking of human rights but then doing nothing to stop these situations?
More concretely, what initiatives would you expect the West and the international organizations to take?
The whole world must come together and help us get rid of the IS guerrillas, free all of Iraq, and deploy an international force to protect civilians—otherwise, no one will have the courage to return to their homes. Europe and America have a duty to intervene. I am asking for an international military intervention of blue helmets to be launched as soon as possible. For each day that goes by, peace will be increasingly difficult to achieve, and the situation will get worse and worse, and not only for Christians.
The peace of our villages has been destroyed, and the plains of Nineveh and other major cities have fallen into the hands of the IS army. The West has been asleep. Just accepting some Iraqi refugees in Europe is not good enough: What is needed is to solve the root causes of the problem. The members of the Islamic State must be run off, and the nations who are supplying them weapons and materiel must be punished. At the end of the day, we are only being supported by the voice of Pope Francis, with Caritas and the Apostolic Nunciature in Iraq doing all they can to help the refugees.
What is the situation in Baghdad?
In Baghdad we are far from safe. Kidnappings and car bombs are the order of the day, and there is widespread fear that the Islamic State will come and take over. The whole Western world must take seriously what is happening in Iraq, because the intention of the Caliphate is to occupy the whole world, including Rome. As I have said time and again, and also in Rimini at the Meeting per l’amicizia fra i popoli (an annual cultural event held in Rimini, Italy, at the end of August, organized by the Catholic lay movement Communion and Liberation), if you in the West keep on ignoring this danger, sooner or later terrorists will come knocking at your door. Regardless of motivations, what happened in Paris in early January is just a foretaste.
How many Christians are left in Iraq?
Before 2003 [the U.S. invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein], Christians numbered at least 800,000. Today, they are fewer than half that number. Emigration, thanks to the overall instability, insecurity, and lack of peace in Iraq, is also destroying us. When we urge our people not to leave, echoing the Pope’s appeal for them to remain and continue bearing witness to Jesus Christ as they have been doing for some 2,000 years now, they answer, “Who is going to guarantee our lives and those of our families?” Internal refugees and displaced Christians number no fewer than 150,000. In Baghdad alone there are more than 500 such families.
As far as you know, were any churches in Iraq destroyed?
Not that I am aware of. I do know that some of our places of worship have been devastated. Books and manuscripts were burned, and crosses destroyed, as were statues of the Blessed Virgin. Obviously, Iraq’s Christian heritage must be protected, including the many ancient churches that date back to the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, as well as other monuments and the many still-unpublished manuscripts. But in a way the material destruction of a church is not that important, in the sense that a church as a building can always be rebuilt. Terrorists may be ruthless, but they are not stupid. All of our churches and centers of catechesis were occupied by the scum of Daesh [the Arabic acronym for the IS], especially following the U.S. bombing campaign; they were seeking refuge in these buildings on the assumption that they were the safest places to hide.
When you uproot a tree, it dies. Today, an entire people is being uprooted. But I will not resign myself to an Iraq and a Middle East without Christians after our 2,000-year history, all the more so considering how essential our contribution to the social, cultural, and religious life of our country is.
[Image Attribution: By my friend? (friend send it to me via email) [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons]