Telling the Story of the Mideast’s ‘Disappearing People’ — Christians
Stephen Rasche discusses what he has learned from 10 years working in the Archdiocese of Erbil alongside Iraq’s persecuted Christian minority.
After 10 years working side by side with Iraq’s Christians facing possible extinction, Stephen Rasche wanted to tell their story — but in a different way, one that let their authentic voice emerge.
This has led to the publication of his new book The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East — a “beautiful, disturbing, awful story that needed to be told,” according to Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute, and what Gregory Stanton, founding president of Genocide Watch, has called the best book ever written about the genocide of Christians and Yazidis in Iraq.
Rasche has borrowed the voices of those who “continue to face daily crucifixion,” wrote Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto, Nigeria, in his own praise of the book. Their witness to Christ “reminds the world of its sins of omission,” he added, and “this book should be read both as an act of penance and also an offering to God.”
A U.S. citizen, since 2010 Rasche has served as counsel to the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq, which included the traumatic 2014-2017 ISIS occupation of parts of the Nineveh Plain. He also helped found the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee, tasked with helping Christians return to the region after ISIS was defeated, and has testified on behalf of Iraqi Christians at the United Nations, the U.S. Congress and the European Union Parliament. Before working in Iraq, Rasche worked for 25 years in the field of international business and law.
In this March 19 email interview, Rasche tells the Register’s Rome correspondent Edward Pentin what Iraq’s ancient Christian communities have taught him, what lessons can be learned from tragic missed opportunities to help them, and how the Church — despite the “awful and ugly news” coming from some of its leaders — “simply cannot be replaced.”
What made you write this book?
First, my friends in the Church in Iraq wanted to have their story told in the West and encouraged me to write about it in a way that could make people understand the reality of what the Christians in the East were facing. Second, during the times I spoke in the West about the situation, many of our supporters and sympathizers also spoke to me of the need to document all this and to write about it. Still, I put off doing it largely because we were simply overwhelmed with the actual work in Iraq itself. Having visited with us in Iraq during these times, you know firsthand what our situation was like — how stretched we were.
Finally, though, it became clear that we were nearly out of time and that if the book was ever going to mean anything, it had to be done now, while some small hope still remained — while it could still be a current event and not just historical epitaph.
The Disappearing People has been described as one of the best accounts of the genocide in the Middle East in the 2010s — what kind of new information and anecdotes do you disclose in the book that give a more vivid picture of the challenges Christians have faced there?
Through the Church in Iraq, I was living and working side by side with the people during these years, first in the areas where the displaced were sheltered, then later in the towns as they were recovered and we began rebuilding. This closeness, developed over years of shared experience, allowed for the stories of the clergy and the people to come out in their own voice, in a manner where they could speak honestly about what things meant for them. In the book we worked very hard to let it be in the authentic voice of the Iraqis and Yazidis themselves, and I think, at least I hope, this comes through in a very profound way that is different from so much of the journalistic treatment of this subject so far. And as the reader will see — their voices represent a very different reality than what much of the West might in general suppose, including those within the Western Church and the established international aid community.
You describe in the book the “existential threat” of extremist Islam that confronts all of us: Why does this threat exist in your view, and what should the West do to stop it?
These words are actually those of K.H. Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, who included them in an important piece of advance praise for the book. He is a global voice for a moderate and coexisting Islam, and he showed tremendous courage in supporting this book. But certainly the book addresses the matter directly, as well, and it is this: There exists today, by some flying the flag of what they claim is true Islam, a strain of violence and structural persecution of minorities, which both Islam and the world need to address honestly, and unthinking deflection of its reality, both within the West and within Islam itself, only serves to enable its spread and harm to all, including harm to the majority of Muslims themselves. As a first step, the West needs to acknowledge the truth of this and how it has devastated the minorities of the Mideast. Hopefully this book shows that.
The book is also described as a story of where and how the West could have helped persecuted Christians but didn’t. What lessons can we learn from these tragic missed opportunities to ensure help is not overlooked again?
I think there are three major themes that come up over the course of the book. First, that there has long been a structured and sustained persecution and violence against the Christians in the Mideast, which the West continues to largely ignore or deflect, thereby enabling its continuance. Second, that the international aid paradigm in the West continues to cling to basic assumptions about process and delivery that routinely fall apart in the harsh realities of the world such as those faced by the Christians in Iraq. Third, that timing and urgency in implementation is everything when dealing with these situations of mass persecution and genocide, and, with but a few notable exceptions, these delays blunted even the best-intentioned efforts in Iraq, and in some respects have made the situation worse.
These themes, moreover, are not unique to Iraq. A similar situation is being faced right now by the Christians of Africa. Bishop Matthew Kukah of Nigeria, who also wrote strong advance praise for this book, is trying desperately, together with other leaders of the Church in Africa, to get the world to hear their pleas in the face of relentless violence and global indifference. One thing that is clearly important to understand is that the story of Iraq’s Christians and Nigeria’s Christians are not separate stories; they are all part of one story that is being played out in different places. This book should be read in that context.
What have you learned the most during your 10 years serving the ancient Christian communities in the Middle East? What can we learn from them?
Living in the land of such ancient history, where so many of the scenes of the Old Testament are literally under your feet, you learn that the arc of history is so very long, with much of it very hard, and that it is so very difficult to see what your seeds of hope might grow into and how fundamental it is to have faith that endures. For the Christians of the East, I think this has given them a deep and natural faith, a patience and strength of resistance to harm and misfortune. All of this, including the unending persecution of their faith, makes them value what is ancient in them, especially their faith and its place. In the West, we are seemingly throwing away all of what we have been without any thought or patience to any of it. In Iraq the people are persecuted, and yet the churches are full. In the West the people are free and safe, at least physically, while the churches are turned into condominiums and performance halls. There is room for a lot of reflection in that.
What made you want to work for Christians in the region, putting yourself in considerable danger to do so?
Honestly, I cannot say I wanted to do it initially. In fact, I tried very hard to rationalize as to why I should not. But after a period of difficult discernment and counsel, it became clear that, for better or worse, this calling was there, and I could not deny it. Some of this story is in the book. Once there, however, that all changed. I can tell you without hesitation that, from the standpoint of vocation, these past years in Iraq have been worth more than all the other working years of my life combined. I never once wished I was not there and to this day feel blessed for the richness and meaning these past years have brought to me, even with all their hardship and pain.
Given increasing tensions with Iran and other global challenges and unrest in the region, how do you foresee the future for Middle East Christians, and what can the U.S. and ordinary lay faithful do to help?
We cannot deny this — the future for Christians in the Middle East is very difficult, given the violence and persecution that pervades the region. In many ways, this bleak future awaits the Muslim population of the Mideast, as well, if these cycles of violence and persecution do not come to an end. As for hope, there are some small rays left for the Christians, and those are discussed in the book.
As for the U.S., they can stop engaging in policies that enable this persecution to continue and instead prioritize honest discussion and policymaking with those who directly or indirectly facilitate and perpetrate it. As one example, throughout the Mideast, primary-school texts routinely teach fundamental lies and justifications of persecution against innocent minorities. Why do we and the E.U. support governments that allow this to continue? How does the U.N. remain essentially silent on this?
As for the lay faithful, they can stay informed, not turn away, and not forget their brothers and sisters. I hope that this book provides an accessible way for some of that to happen. In not forgetting, in staying informed, much of the rest of what is helpful and just will come naturally, I am quite sure.
What has your time there taught you about the Church?
One of the real blessings which came to me through the course of this work was the opportunity to see the universality of the Church at work and the power that it still retains to do good works. So much awful and ugly news about the Church was revealed throughout the West during the years while I worked in Iraq, and like so many of those in the Church, at times it brought me close to despair, I admit. But I had as counterbalance to all that the daily humble efforts, sometimes heroic even, that I saw throughout the Church, not just in the East, but also with all those in the West who supported us.
There are still so many desperate places of mercy and service in this world where the universal Church simply cannot be replaced. I have tried to show this in the book, and I do hope that those faithful in the West who sit close to despair over the state of things can take some comfort in the real workings of the Church out on the edge, working without safety nets, just serving. I would not be disappointed if Western readers took that inspiration from the book.