Car by car, family by family, frightened Iraqi Christians by the thousands fled their ancient Iraqi homeland over the weekend. With broken hearts and little more than the clothes on their backs, they’ve left behind their houses, businesses, and churches – everything they’ve known.
The Islamic State (ISIS) terror group announced through their mosques on Friday afternoon that local Christians must either convert to Islam, pay an exorbitant Muslim tax – the jizya, which amounts to protection money – or leave the city. If they did not conform to these demands by noon on Saturday, July 19, there would be “nothing for them but the sword.”
Christianity is not new to the region. It was introduced by two of Jesus’ own disciples – St. Thomas and St. Thaddeus (also known as St. Jude) in the 1st Century.
But the ancient roots of Iraq’s Christianity have now been violently ripped out of the country’s spiritual soil.
'Convert, pay the jizya tax, or die,' means, quite simply, that there is little alternative but to flee.
Most of the Nineveh Plain’s Christians – once numbering more than a hundred thousand – had already fled to Erbil and other destinations in Kurdistan before ISIS’s recent declaration, seeking the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga’s warriors.
Now the rest of the refugees – many of the last Christians in Iraq – have joined them.
It’s not surprising that the vicious tactics of the IS/ISIS terrorists horrify most observers. As is often reported on social media – with substantial videographic evidence – they have beheaded, mutilated, raped, stoned and even crucified those whose behavior is “unIslamic” or whose religious convictions displease them.
The West has managed to muster a tepid response. For example on Sunday, a statement emanating from the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s spokesman:
“...condemned in the strongest terms the systematic persecution of minority populations in Iraq by Islamic State (IS) and associated armed groups. He is particularly disturbed by reports of threats against Christians in Mosul and other IS-controlled parts of Iraq, including an ultimatum to either convert, pay a tax, leave, or face imminent execution…”
The UN, US, EU and numerous others have all denounced IS/ISIS.
But the various powers’ “strongly worded” official condemnations seem to be little more than indignant complaints.
President Obama, for example, has demonstrated no inclination to apply American muscle to ISIS. Speaking about their activities in Syria, he explained,
"What we can't do is think that we're just going to play Whac-a-Mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up…."
Rather than fighting fire with fire, western leaders apparently imagine that diplomatic endeavors – including “strongly worded” denunciations – will stop zealous murderers in their tracks.
Obama and his cohorts seem to have an astonishingly high regard for their persuasive skills.
At the same time, they demonstrate only a dim awareness of the terrorists’ fierce religious fervor.
Devoutly committed to radical Islamist ideology – whether of the Sunni or Shia variety – fanatics like ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Iran’s ayatollahs quite sincerely view the West as the primary force of evil in the world.
Why would such “holy warriors” negotiate with western evildoers?
Only, perhaps, to deceive them.
In Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere, it is abundantly clear that such niceties as “dialogue” are of little interest to bloodthirsty savages.
In the meantime, as American strength diminishes around the globe, the dangers posed by radical Islamist groups like ISIS are exploding exponentially.
And where does this leave the Iraq’s Christians and other minorities whose lives are at stake? Sadly, they are well aware that no host of valiant defenders is going to come to their rescue. In fact, the Iraqi Army virtually melted away when ISIS appeared.
So for the Christians, “Convert, pay the jizya tax, or die,” means, quite simply, that there is little alternative but to flee -- except in a small number of villages over which Kurdistan has extended a protective umbrella.
Thus, most Christians have fled.
Still, some intrepid Iraqi Christians refuse to give up. “If we all leave, it sends the message that there is nowhere safe for Christians to live in Iraq — and this worries me,” Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Yohanna Petros Mouche, told the Washington Post. “I’m not a vagabond. This is my home, and I will die here if necessary.”
Such fortitude is inspiring. And yet courage and determination cannot eclipse such excruciating losses. Whether Iraq’s Christians stay or go, nothing can remove the devastating sense of injury and injustice they are experiencing.
“Many Christians interviewed expressed a sense of utter abandonment and desolation,” the New York Times reported. They remarked that the sound of church bells mingled with the Muslim calls to prayer – a symbol of Mosul’s long-standing religious tolerance – “would likely never be heard again.”
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.