They went to church to hunt Christians, again.
The blood had splashed everywhere, even on the ceiling of the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad. The terrorists had arrived dressed as security guards. Then they locked the doors and unloaded their weapons.
They were yelling “God is Great” as they slaughtered men, women and children. They killed 58 and injured 100 more that morning.
And who was responsible?
The “The Islamic State,” of course, and they did it under the orders of their newly appointed leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Yet this massacre didn’t occur in 2014 as ISIS marched from city to city, chopping off the heads of their opponents as they went. The Baghdad church massacre happened in 2010 — a full four years before ISIS had captured one contiguous piece of Iraqi and Syrian land the size of the United Kingdom.
Actually, by 2010, most Iraqi Christians had already been targeted. In fact, 40 of Baghdad’s 65 churches had been bombed, along with 60 more in Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. The conflict had allowed extremists to finally rid Iraq of its ancient Christian minority, and hardly anyone noticed their systematic efforts in the fog of war.
The Christians were not dying in crossfire; they were being picked off the way a sniper stalks his target.
By 2010, nearly every church in Iraq had been forced to build blast walls around its sanctuary to provide at least one extra layer of protection between its congregants and the inevitablecar bomb. The stories of kidnappings and murders of preachers and parishioners were numerous. All of this forced one million of Iraq’s surviving 1.5 million Christians to leave the country between 2003 and 2010.
Now ISIS is trying to finish the job, carefully targeting those portions of Iraq where Christians, and other religious minorities, have lived for centuries.
They aren’t starting a campaign to eliminate Christianity from Iraq; they are finishing it. And the tragedy is that the world is only now realizing what’s been going on for so long.
And it might be too late.
This summer ISIS emptied the ancient cities of Mosul and Qaraqosh of their Christians. After 1,600 years of continuous worship, there now are no church bells ringing in Mosul. There is no Catholic Mass, no Sunday school. There are no monasteries. And there is nothing but rubble at many of its ancient pilgrimage sites.
For centuries Iraq sheltered one of the largest Christian populations in the region. At one point Baghdad was the center of Christian scholarship in all of the Middle East, and pilgrims visited its ancient monasteries and its shrines to prophets like Jonah, Daniel, Ezekiel and Nahum.
Iraq was, after all, the place where Christians believed God created mankind. It was where Abraham was born, and within its borders rests the ancient cities of Nineveh and Babylon. The Gospel had arrived in Iraq from the preaching of one of Christ’s apostles who eventually converted nearly every Assyrian.
Now, what took thousands of years to build has been destroyed in a single decade, and in plain sight of the world.
Can it be that we have stood by quietly while nearly 2000 years of Christianity have been nearly eliminated from Iraq?
The Archbishop of Mosul told me when I met him in Iraq last month, “I am an archbishop and I now have no churches. I have nothing but God. I am not afraid of anything. I have lost everything.”
Behind the bombs and bloodshed, beyond the sectarian violence and political posturing, a war is raging against individual lives whose stories are as heartbreaking as they are numerous — like the Iraqi woman I read about yesterday whose only child, a beautiful 3-year-old girl, was taken by ISIS.
The mom and her husband were then driven out of the city and thrown out of a bus to walk for seven hours to the nearest city. To this day, they have no idea what has come of their precious child.
All of this happened for one reason: They were Christians.
Now that desperate couple, along with hundreds of thousands of others, lives as refugees inside their own country, facing a frigid Iraqi winter with insufficient shelter to survive it.
If something doesn’t happen, they will have survived ISIS, only to freeze to death. Then ISIS will win anyhow, and their only child will not have parents to come back to if she is eventually freed.
The cover of the monthly magazine published by ISIS recently featured a picture of St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, with an ISIS flag superimposed atop the Egyptian obelisk that adorns the entryway to the global Catholic Church.
That picture was a chilling reminder of the ambitions of these maniacs. The article promised that ISIS would break the crosses of the Christians and sell and trade their women.
This is what they have done there, and it is what they would like to do here.
I am numbered among a group of Christians — and Muslims who are friends of Christians — who are working very hard through The Cradle Fund to provide winterized shelter and other support for families who have been displaced by ISIS.
We shall defy ISIS’ evil with our love for those whose lives they have nearly destroyed. We shall attack their hatred with our generosity — and with the same determination, except to help those Christians they’d love to see die by the sword or by the cold.
But we must move fast, because winter is coming …