Just a year ago, after months of bombings, shootings and kidnappings, Baghdad’s Monsignor Pios Cacha made a grim prediction. He said that his Iraqi Christian community was experiencing the kind of religious cleansing that eradicated the country’s once-thriving Jewish community half a century before.
His rather prophetic words made headlines in Lebanon’s Daily Star: "Iraqi Christians fear fate of departed Jews."
Father Cacha’s reflections couldn’t have been more prescient. As he knew very well, Iraq was once home to 135,000 Jews. Today less than ten Jews remain in the entire country.
And now, with the raging incursion of ISIS – a brutal Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group – the religious cleansing of Iraq’s Christians is nearing completion as well.
Iraq’s Christian community is hardly a western innovation or a colonial relic. It dates from the 1st Century, when two of Jesus’ disciples – St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus (also known as St. Jude) – preached the Gospel in what was then Assyria. There has been a Christian presence in Iraq ever since.
The heartland of their community has always been in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. There, in recent years, the Christian population has swelled, as refugees from Basra and Baghdad have sought protection.
And now, as ISIS sweeps through Iraq, an estimated 150,000 have had to flee Mosul and their ancient Christian heartland, some for the second time in a decade.
Thousands of homeless families have surged into Kurdistan, where they have found provisional shelter and security, thanks to the Kurdish people and their battle-hardened Peshmerga militia.
Yet, strange as it seems, few in the West are aware of the Iraqi Christians' plight or their uncertain future.
My Hudson Institute colleague author Nina Shea writes, “The wave of persecution that has been directed at Iraq’s Christians after 2003 has never received much attention by either President Bush or President Obama’s administrations, but it has been a grave human-rights problem. The campaign against Christians has encompassed 70 deliberate church bombings and assaults, as well as assassinations, an epidemic of kidnappings, and other attacks against clergy and laity alike. In recent years, particularly since 2004, a million of Iraq’s Christians have been driven out of the country by such atrocities. This can be rightly called targeted religious cleansing, and it is a crime against humanity.”
Christians in the Middle East know very well about the ferocious system of Islam enforced by ISIS terrorists. When the group attacked Raqqa, Syria earlier this year, they gave the Christians three options: “Convert. Submit to Islam. Or face the sword.”
In order to save lives, Raqqa’s Christian elders chose to submit to ISIS’s 7th Century version of Muslim Sharia law and became dhimmis, a subservient, second-class minority under Islamic rule.
Among other severe demands, particularly about women’s dress, their oppressors also forbade the repair of war-torn churches, worshiping or praying in public, ringing church bells, or wearing crosses or other symbols of faith. Bearing arms is forbidden, and of course alcoholic beverages are banned.
The Christians in Iraq know all too well what they face as ISIS carries out its triumphant assault on Iraq – the terrorists’ vile reputation has preceded them. Images of ISIS beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, torture and mass execution have been widely disseminated on social media, including graphic YouTube videos.
To make matters worse, rather than offer assistance to their Christian neighbors, many Sunni Muslims in the area have simply turned a blind eye or even joined the invaders.
Iraq’s Christians have been left with little choice but to flee.
But where will they go?
In fact, the Middle East is overflowing with refugees. Millions of displaced Syrians are living in tents and shacks, particularly along the borders of Turkey and Jordan.
Thousands of Syria’s Armenian Christians have been relocated to Yerevan and its surrounding communities.
Coptic Christians have fled Egypt by the thousands since the so-called Arab Spring began. Those who remain are hoping and praying for better days under the new President al-Sisi.
And now most of Iraq’s remaining Christians are on the run, too, many of them leaving behind everything they own.
Canon Andrew White, the beloved Anglican “Vicar of Baghdad” reports, "Things are so bad now in Iraq, the worst they have ever been….The army [has] even fled. We urgently need help and support….We are in a desperate crisis."
Some fifty years ago, Iraq’s Jews were able to flee to Israel when they faced similar terror. But there is no Israel for Christians. Where can they go?
With that in mind, I asked my Hudson Institute colleague Hillel Fradkin, an expert on the Middle East, for his thoughts about their future.
“Considering the present developments in Iraq,” he said, “it is almost certain that Iraq will cease to exist as a united country. It will probably divide into three parts, one of which will be an independent Kurdistan. Since that’s home to another long-oppressed Iraqi minority – the Kurds – the Iraqi Christians’ best hope for surviving in the region may well be found in Kurdistan.”
Indeed, thousands have already found provisional shelter there. And as the rest of Iraq’s terrified Christians rush headlong into an unknown future, we can only pray for them as well.
May they find peace, renewed hope and protection – wherever their tragic journey takes them.
Lela Gilbert is author of "Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner" and co-author, with Nina Shea and Paul Marshall, of "Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians." She is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute and lives in Jerusalem. For more, visit her website: www.lelagilbert.com. Follow her on Twitter@lelagilbert.