WASHINGTON — When parishioners at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in northwest Washington quietly filed into their pews for a July 28 “Vigil for the Persecuted Church in Iraq,” some were perplexed by the unfamiliar symbol on the cover of the program.
It was the Arabic letter “N” — for “Nazarene” — and it is the letter spray-painted on the houses of Christians in Mosul by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), who earlier this month gave Christians in that ancient city with historic Christian roots three choices: They could flee, convert to Islam or die. The “N” on the exterior of houses was a cruel signifier that ISIS was seizing their dwellings.
Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, reported that some fleeing residents of Mosul could look back and see the militants looting their houses.
Although intended as sign of degradation, the “N” is instead a “badge of honor,” said Father Richard Mullins, who addressed about 75 worshippers at the St. Thomas vigil. Priests were vested in red, the color of martyrdom, appropriate at a vigil for Christians who are suffering — and even facing death — because of their faith.
Father Mullins began his homily with the story of Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni, a Chaldean Catholic priest in Mosul, who, along with three deacons, was murdered by Islamic militants on Trinity Sunday in 2007. Father Ganni was killed because he refused to close his church and convert to Islam. Father Mullins said that, since then, the persecution of Chaldean and other Christians in Iraq has “entered a deeper phase.”
Persecution, in combination with wartime violence, has reduced the number of Christians in Iraq by more than a million today from the 1.4 million level in 2003. Mosul, once home to a thriving Christian community, now has no Christians.
Historic Low Point
June 15 — days after ISIS gained control of the city — was the first Sunday in 1,600 years when no Mass was said in Mosul. According to Shea, the Christian “banishment from Mosul is irreversible.”
Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako marked this period as the lowest point in the history of Christianity in Iraq.
“This has never happened in Christian or Islamic history. Even Genghis Khan or [his brutal grandson] Hulagu didn’t do this,” the patriarch said.
Christians were robbed at checkpoints as they fled. Most are now living in territory controlled by the Kurdish militia, where they have no water and scarce supplies. Christian gravesites and places of worship have been destroyed.
“Iraq today is not the same as Iraq of a year ago or even three months ago,” Bishop Francis Kalabat of the St. Thomas the Apostle Eparchy, a Chaldean Catholic diocese located in Southfield, Mich., wrote in a letter announcing a prayer service for the persecuted Christians of Iraq. “No matter what the outcome, we have a hard time accepting that the second-largest city in Iraq, and for some the most beautiful, is bereft of any Christian.”
“As events unfold before our eyes, we are left astounded and befuddled,” the bishop continued. “So we wish to scream, but there are no ears that wish to hear. … We want the U.S. to weep with us, but it is not paying attention.”
One person who has not ignored the plight of the Christians of Iraq is Pope Francis, who has offered public prayers and spoken forcefully at the Vatican about Iraqi Christians who “are persecuted, chased away, forced to leave their houses without the possibility of taking anything” with them. Indeed, the Holy Father has said that there are more Christian martyrs today than in the first century of the Church, when the Roman Emperor Nero persecuted Christians.
‘Sword in Our Hearts’
While he deeply appreciates the Holy Father’s strong support for Iraqi Christians, Father Michael Bazzi, a priest at St. Peter Chaldean Church in San Diego, told the Register that members of his church often feel other leaders in the West have abandoned them. His parish is particularly affected by the recent events in Iraq because almost all members still have family there.
“Every day there is a sword in our hearts,” said Father Bazzi.
“Every day we get word of a monastery being burned down,” the Iraq-born priest said. The Christians who are living under Kurdish protection are having a hard time, he said. “They are suffering so much because they have no water, and they have to dig wells, and that takes time,” he said.
Father Bazzi added that one family heard about relatives who had dug a well with great difficulty only to find that the water was salty and undrinkable. But he said that Iraqi Christians do not convert because they have a strong Christian faith and because they “know what Islam is, and they have seen Muslims abuse their wives.”
“I will never say Christianity in Iraq is over, because there have been so many persecutions before, but this is the worst,” Father Bazzi said. “We don’t give up, and we have hope in God. Every day we pray and cry because everybody has somebody who is still there. We are very sad. We have processions, some inside the church and some outside. Procession is a form of prayer. We have processions [to draw attention to the dire situation]. You can see the tears in our eyes, but nobody listens. Where is Obama?”
Father Bazzi is not alone in believing that President Barack Obama, who has not specifically addressed the plight of Iraqi Christians, and his administration have been shockingly lacking in their response to the persecution.
“The inaction of our own government is a disgrace and a scandal,” said Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project and the Program on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.
Farr said that the issue of religious freedom is simply not central to the Obama administration, even though religious liberty can promote stable economic growth.
Farr noted that the Obama administration had left the post of ambassador-at-large for religious freedom vacant for nine months. Shortly after the interview, the president named Rabbi David Saperstein to the post. Saperstein has been critical of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, which protected the freedom of religion for Hobby Lobby’s owners.
U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who has spoken out about the suffering of Iraqi Christians six times on the floor of the House of Representatives, doesn’t mince words when it comes to the Obama administration’s apparent neglect of Christians in Iraq.
“The secretary of state has done nothing. The president has done nothing. The ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, who wrote a book on genocide, is doing nothing,” Wolf told the Register. “We’ve just come from a meeting at the State Department. They don’t know what to do. I think they have a fundamental bias against Christians. We are literally seeing the end of Christianity in Iraq. This administration doesn’t care. They don’t care.”
“We just saw a video [about Christians being persecuted], and it was very graphic,” Wolf said. “We are basically seeing the end of Christianity in Iraq, probably by the end of the year, if something dramatic isn’t done.”
Wolf said that the discussion at the State Department had been about an emergency grant of $8 million, for which bids are out and which Wolf asked them to give to Catholic Relief Services. “People are out of water,” Wolf said, “but the State Department is looking for gender sensitivity [in making the grant].”
The U.S. Department of State released its 2013 “International Religious Freedom Report” on July 28. Wolf said that, despite the report’s findings of unprecedented religious “displacement,” Secretary of State John Kerry spent more time talking about the Salem witch trials than about the current situation.
Wolf and Democratic U.S. Rep. Anna Eschoo from California sponsored a bill to create a State Department envoy to handle exclusively issues regarding the plight of people who belong to religious minorities, which passed in both the House and Senate. The bill has been sent to President Obama.
An email to the White House requesting information or comment on the administration’s response to Christian persecution in Iraq had not received a reply at press time.
Stepping Up Support
As for non-governmental responses to the persecution of Christians in Iraq, Michael LaCivita, chief communications officer for the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), said that Christians have stepped up to support fellow believers in Iraq.
“The response has been terrific,” LaCivita told the Register. “This is a cradle of Christianity, and it’s being eliminated in the cradle of civilization. It is not just the expulsion of Christians. Other religious minorities are being slaughtered too in the Middle East. I’ve never seen persecution like this.”
Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute worries that the Christians of Iraq and elsewhere are being ignored by the West. Shea recently visited Rome and toured the catacombs. A guide was asked by someone on the tour where the early Christian martyrs were buried. The guide said that the Church so revered the martyrs that many Christians came to that site and took their bones as relics for churches throughout Europe.
“And I thought,” said Shea in a Register interview, “that we don’t even know the names or the number of Christians being killed at point-blank range in Nigeria after being demanded to answer, ‘Do you want to convert or do you want to die?’"
“In the past, we revered our martyrs. We built churches and named them in their honor, and we say a litany of their names — Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, etc. — at Mass today. Now, we don’t know their names because the Western Church is so oblivious to their sufferings.”
Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.