BAGHDAD — With lightning speed, Islamist militants have seized swathes of northern Iraq — forcing hundreds of thousands to take flight and threatening the destruction of Iraq’s Christian remnant — as they drive on relentlessly toward Baghdad.
Hardened by the past three years of fighting in Syria’s civil war, Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have poured forces into Iraq as part of their plans to establish a new Islamic caliphate in the region. ISIS forces overran Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, in early June, as more than 30,000 U.S.-trained Iraqi army and police forces threw down their weapons, abandoned their posts and fled.
ISIS — now flush with cash from $425 million captured from Mosul’s central bank and armed with sophisticated weaponry supplied by the United States to the Iraqi security forces — currently controls more than 360 miles of territory stretching from northern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad. In a matter of two weeks, ISIS has eclipsed al-Qaeda as the world’s most successful terrorist army and threatens to both expunge the Christian community from Iraq and thrust the country into a bloody sectarian Sunni-Shia war.
The situation has greatly alarmed Iraqi Christians, who mainly belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church, as the United States and the international community watch ISIS continue to capture Iraqi cities and commit atrocities on the population.
"We’re very disappointed at this time to see that there are no serious steps being taken to contain this situation," said Father Niaz Toma, a temporary spokesman for Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim of the Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle, based in Michigan.
"We are very afraid that we will not receive any support from the international community."
Pleas from the Iraqi government for U.S. airpower to support them in the battle against ISIS have gone on for months, and the fall of Mosul and subsequent cities has only intensified that plea. In a June 13 statement, President Barack Obama said that "short-term military action, including any assistance we might provide, won’t succeed" until the Iraqis form a government that bridges the sectarian divide. The current government is drawn from Iraq’s Shiite majority and is widely distrusted by its Sunni minority. On June 16, Obama said some military and security personnel could be sent to assist Iraqi troops.
While the U.S. mulls its options, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is reported to have turned to neighboring Iran — the largest Shiite-dominated Islamic nation — for support, and Shiite clerics have issued a fatwa (formal legal opinion), calling upon Iraqis to engage in jihad (religious war) against ISIS, which has pledged to destroy Shiite shrines.
Intent on stoking a sectarian conflagration, ISIS released a video on social media showing its forces massacring a purported 1,700 captured Iraqi Shiite air-force recruits in Tikrit. While the U.S. State Department could not confirm the body count, it said the video was "horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent."
Worst to Come
With ISIS in firm control of Mosul and the ancient Iraqi Christian homeland of Nineveh, many Christians are fleeing east toward the autonomous Kurdistan region for refuge. Some Christians, including Mosul Chaldean Archbishop Amel Nona, continue to remain in the Christian villages on Mosul’s outskirts, perilously close to ISIS forces.
"Mosul is being purged of Christians," said Edward Clancy, director of evangelization and outreach at Aid to the Church in Need. He explained that ISIS’ terrifying reputation for brutality was well-established in Syria.
"They’ve been known to be beheading and crucifying people in Syria," he said. They’ve also imposed the jizya, a crushing tax on Christians under their rule, who don’t want the alternatives of death or conversion to Islam.
"I don’t think their methods are going to change now that they’re in Iraq," he said.
Clancy doubted that any Christians were left in Mosul itself and believed that the Christian remnant has fled toward Erbil in Kurdistan, where Kurdistan’s security forces, the Pesh Merga, hold ISIS at bay.
Speaking from the city of Kirkuk, another city in northern Iraq where Iraq’s Kurdish minority has a strong presence, Chaldean priest Father Kais Mumtaz told Fides News Service that the prospect of open civil war is the most dangerous scenario facing the country’s Christians.
"Everything seems to be leading towards a military management crisis only, i.e. towards civil war," Father Mumtaz said, Fides reported June 14. "And now this scares many Christians even more than the advance of the Islamists: The war makes no distinction between soldiers, terrorists and civilians. It strikes Christians, Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites in the same way."
Mosul was home to 35,000 Christians in 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, and the Christian population had dwindled down to barely 3,000 before ISIS’ onslaught.
The United Nations has estimated upwards of 500,000 Iraqis are now displaced by the fighting. But the enormity of the crisis has overwhelmed what little shelter the Christians in the villages on Mosul’s outskirts can offer.
"They are running out of room and can’t handle any more refugees," the priest said.
Iraq’s Christians and other minorities have suffered greatly since the 2003 U.S. invasion, as the country has been caught in waves of sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The country’s Christian population has cratered from 1.5 million (5% of Iraq’s population) to fewer than 400,000. Unfortunately, half of them live in the Nineveh province seized by ISIS.
"What we’re looking at will be the dying echoes of Christianity in Iraq," said John Allen Jr., author of The Global War on Christians and associate editor at The Boston Globe. "We all ought to be extremely concerned about that."
Allen pointed out that the U.S. government has failed to make protecting Christians and other minorities a priority. Failing to support them, Allen said, will reveal "whether or not we took the responsibilities we brought on ourselves, when we went to war, seriously."
"Without passing any moral judgment on the legitimacy of the U.S. wars in Iraq, the plain fact of the matter is that it was those wars which created the situation in which Christians are walking around with bull’s-eyes on their backs," he said.
But if Christians are eliminated from Iraq, Allen said the region will have lost one of its best chances to facilitate peace among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.
"In terms of realpolitik, they don’t pose a threat to anyone; therefore, they can talk to anyone," Allen said, adding that Christians in the Middle East can also provide a bridge between the West and Islam, avoiding the clash of civilizations.
"If they’re driven out, we’re in a world of hurt."
Iraqi Christians are adding their voices to the call for a unity government that will overcome the sectarian division that weakened Iraq in the face of ISIS’ advance. The sense of alienation and oppression felt by Sunnis against Maliki’s dysfunctional and Shiite-dominated government led many Sunnis to welcome ISIS for removing roadblocks and restoring services such as electricity. But if Syria is any blueprint, the honeymoon is bound to come to a violent end.
Father Toma said the Chaldean Catholic Church is "uniting our hearts with our people in Iraq and the entire Iraqi people."
"But we’re sending the message loud and clear that the main solution to this problem is the formation of an Iraqi government as soon as possible with the sovereignty of civil law," he said.
Father Toma said an inclusive government would help stabilize the cities and imbue the Iraqi security forces to respond effectively to the crisis by sending the message that "the loyalty should be to Iraq and only to Iraq."
As the Christians maintain an ever more dangerous high-wire act in Iraq, they continue to depend on private aid, particularly Christian generosity. Aid to the Church in Need’s Clancy said U.S. Christian solidarity helps sustain Iraq’s Christians and their charitable efforts to the population in maintaining schools, health care and food-distribution programs.
Right now, he said, the situation is so fluid that Aid to the Church in Need is still evaluating how best to assist them.
Pope Francis prayed for peace in Iraq at his June 15 Sunday Angelus, calling on the faithful to join him.
"These people have withstood a lot, and they have shown extraordinary gifts," Clancy said. "But they need prayers, they need awareness-building, and they need people to speak out and say that something needs to be done to help the Christians."
To help the Iraqi Christians
in need, visit ChurchinNeed.org.