“The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and, see, something greater than Jonah is here!” — Matthew 12:41
After 1,600 years, Sunday Mass is no longer celebrated in Mosul, a northern Iraqi city known as Nineveh during biblical times. Worse still, Catholic aid groups have confirmed reports of the violent persecution of Christians — including crucifixions — by fighters from the brutal jihadist organization Islamic State (IS). So writes Charlotte Hays in her page-one story in this issue on the unfolding tragedy in Mosul and the anemic response from the West.
Faced with an impossible ultimatum — convert, pay a large tax, leave or die — most of the Christians of Mosul have fled, while a handful of those too old or poor to travel have converted to Islam. But there will be no respite for the refugees who have escaped with their lives but little else.
The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), which has worked with the Church in this region for almost a century, expressed fears that IS fighters — who had robbed the exiles of their homes, livelihood, cash and passports — might target other vulnerable Christian communities on the Nineveh Plain.
“Those villages could be in the hands of the Islamic State tonight,” said CNEWA’s Michael La Civita. “And if an adjoining country wants to welcome them, they will make sure the refugees are not bringing a Trojan horse — militants posing as Christian refugees.”
He predicted that an estimated 100,000 Iraqi Christians — “and not only the 30,000 flushed out of Mosul” — could be on the move before long.
“What we are doing is getting aid to the caregivers, bishops, clergy and religious, as they flee with their own flocks,” he said.
The shocking stories of IS’ policy of religious cleansing come amid an explosion of violence and religious persecution across the globe, and so the plight of Mosul’s Christians has drawn little attention in Washington or in many U.S. churches.
“Despite … the systematic extermination of Christians in Iraq, the silence in this town is deafening. Does Washington even care?” asked U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., during a July 29 speech from the floor of Congress.
While President Barack Obama has, in past speeches, affirmed religious liberty as “a universal human right to be protected at home and across the globe,” religious-freedom advocates complain that he has done little to address the surge in religious persecution in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.
Such critics argue that the Obama administration’s failure to make this issue a foreign-policy priority is symbolized by its long delay, until now, in filling the State Department post of ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom. That position has been vacant for the past nine months.
However, on July 28, Obama announced his nominee to fill the vacant post, and Wolf and others have applauded the news as a first step in a long overdue policy shift by the administration.
The president’s nominee, Rabbi David Saperstein, is the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and, if confirmed by the Senate, he will be the first Jewish leader to fill the position. Saperstein comes with some baggage, however. He is a strong supporter of abortion rights. He has also criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in favor of Hobby Lobby — a landmark ruling, which found that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act protects the free-exercise rights of closely held family companies that opposed the Health and Human Services’ mandate.
But Saperstein is widely respected as a dogged supporter of international religious freedom on Capitol Hill, and he quickly won endorsements from U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and others. “Rabbi Saperstein is a good choice for the post,” wrote Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, in a July 30 post for National Review that noted concerns about some of his views. “[H]e is a veteran advocate for religious freedom abroad and has assured friends that he will work assiduously to succeed. I believe him.”
But Farr questioned whether the Obama administration would give Saperstein, in his ambassadorial post, sufficient clout to make a difference for beleaguered religious minorities in Mosul and elsewhere.
“The problem is that it is very difficult to believe this administration on the issue of international religious freedom — it has a six-year litany of splendid words and a record of ‘plans and action’ that has added up to zero,” Farr charged.
Farr also noted that, if the White House were serious about religious freedom, it would begin by having Saperstein report directly to the secretary of state — “like the ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues.”
Meanwhile, as more detailed reports on the plight of Mosul’s Christians reach U.S. lawmakers and Catholic leaders, there are some hopeful signs that Capitol Hill is waking up to the tragedy unfolding on the Nineveh Plain.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has pressed the administration to work with trusted non-governmental aid groups to provide emergency relief to Iraq’s embattled religious minorities. And on July 30, U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, introduced a bipartisan resolution in the Senate that “called upon the State Department to coordinate with the Kurdistan regional government, the Iraqis, our allies in the region and the thousands of refugees who have come to our country over the decades to work together to secure safe havens for those in Iraq seeking refuge from religious persecution.”
Said Portman, “These steps will not end the violence in Iraq, but they will give Iraqi Christians a chance to escape with their lives. Some of our allies are already providing asylum; the U.S. must do more.”
See how to help (links here and here) displaced Iraqi Christians, and pray for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. It is time for U.S. Catholics to call on their representatives in Washington to provide emergency relief for the Christians of Mosul, who inspire us with their courage and determination to live the faith under the harshest possible conditions.