Islamic State's Deadly Threat to Arab Christianity
Dr John Newton FAITH MAGAZINE November - December 2014
With the forces of the so-called Islamic State continuing to make advances in the Middle East, Dr John Newton writes exclusively for Faith on why the future of Christianity in the troubled region is looking bleak.
More than half a million Christians have left Syria, fleeing to neighbouring countries such as Lebanon, and a similar number are believed to be displaced in Syria itself. In Iraq 120,000 Christians fled their homes between June and August 2014. Although this is a much lower figure than the number who fled in Syria, most estimates suggest there are only around a quarter of a million Christians left in Iraq, making the impact of the recent displacement there so much greater.
While the civil war between the government and rebel opposition has been the major factor in displacing Syrians of all religious beliefs, the simplified narrative predominating in most mainstream western news sources hides the complexities of the conflict. The media has been happy to paint the conflict in black and white, but the reality is closer to a spectrum of nuanced greys. Certainly, President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is responsible for imprisoning political opponents and even torturing and killing a number of those they held. But the opposition has never been the paragon of virtue committed to democratic principles that politicians and journalists have wanted it to be.
For a start, there has never been one single opposition: there have always been a number of different groups, and even from the beginning several of these, such as the Al-Nusra Front, harboured hardline Islamist objectives. Even the Syrian National Coalition, an umbrella group which several western governments have recognised as the legitimate representative body for Syria, includes the Muslim Brotherhood, whose recent treatment of the Christian minority under President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt is hardly encouraging.
Syria’s Christians have reported being targeted by Islamist groups throughout the conflict. While accounts of rebel soldiers going door to door in the Christian quarter of Homs in March 2012 and driving them out of the city were initially met with scepticism, by the end of 2013 no one could doubt the intentional targeting of Christians, after three Christian men were shot dead for refusing to convert to Islam and a group of nuns were kidnapped after Maaloula fell to Islamist groups within the opposition.
There were always at least half a dozen militant Islamist opposition groups operating in Syria, including Isis (now calling itself the Islamic State). And, in the military struggle against the government, the clear lines of distinction that the West wants to see between the National Coalition-linked Free Syrian Army and the Islamist factions have been blurred several times. In September 2014 Bassel Idriss, the commander of an FSA-aligned rebel brigade, was one of several group leaders who admitted to working alongside Islamist groups in Syria, including Isis. Idriss confessed: “We are collaborating with the Islamic State and the Nusra Front by attacking the Syrian Army’s gatherings in … Qalamoun”.
With such practical arrangements in place, it is unsurprising that in 2014 the Islamic State has been able to consolidate its hold on areas in Syria and attempt to expand the territory of its declared caliphate. There were also attempts to extend the caliphate into Lebanon in August when the town of Arsal on the border was taken by Isis and Al-Nusra Front soldiers. Arsal was recaptured by the Lebanese Army, but if Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley were to fall to jihadists it would mean disaster for thousands of refugees who have sought sanctuary there. However, the push to extend the caliphate into Syria’s eastern neighbour Iraq poses the greatest threat to the continued presence of Christians in the region.
Iraq’s Christians have been the subject of attacks by extremists since the aftermath of the US-led invasion. This has led to a haemorrhaging of Christians both to the north of Iraq and out of the country. The most significant post-invasion event was the 31 October 2010 siege of Our Lady of Succour Cathedral in Baghdad, which left 58 dead and more than 70 injured. Within six weeks more than 3,200 had fled their homes and, by the start of 2011, nearly 6,000 Christians had arrived in the north. But even after families fled to the north they were not safe. Speaking to Iraqi refugees in Lebanon during an Aid to the Church in Need project trip this March, I was told how they had fled Mosul in 2013 because of continuing persecution by extremist Islamists. In one instance leaflets were distributed in a Christian neighbourhood calling for the faithful to leave or be killed. In hindsight it seems like a prelude to the exodus from Mosul this June when Isis seized the city.
“Iraq’s Christians have been the subject of attacks by extremists since the aftermath
of the US-led invasion”
Yet while more than 70,000 Christians who fled the advance of Isis have found temporary shelter, of some sort, in the capital of the Kurdish region Erbil, the future of the Church in Iraq remains in the balance. While some have called for a safe haven to be created there, this would require material support which has been lacking throughout the refugee crisis. According to the Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, Iraq’s national government in Baghdad has done nothing for displaced Christians. He said: “The reality is that Christians have received no support from the central government. They have done nothing for them, absolutely nothing…The government in Baghdad received a lot of help from the international community for the displaced people from Mosul and Nineveh but there has been no sign of it here.”
According to one senior cleric in the Kurdish region, the central government withdrew all financial subsidies to the autonomous region in January 2014 after the Kurds started selling oil directly, without going through the Baghdad administration. Because of this the care of the displaced Christians in Erbil and Dohuk has been organised by the Church with support from Christian charities, such as Aid to the Church in Need.
Plans are under way to provide Portacabins in the Ankawa suburb of Erbil as temporary accommodation for displaced families. Those who are sleeping in public parks and other open spaces in the city will need additional protection as winter approaches and alternative accommodation will also be needed for families sheltering in schools, as the buildings are needed for teaching once the new academic year begins. In the absence of state funding, Aid to the Church in Need is again helping the Church in Iraq to provide shelter for those who had to abandon their homes as Isis advanced. Speaking about the project, after returning from a visit to Iraq in October, Aid to the Church in Need’s John Pontifex said: “We need to give Christians a chance to find a future in Iraq.”
The failure of outside aid to reach Christians has, unfortunately, been a recurrent theme in the region. When Christians fleeing Syria arrived in the neighbouring Bekaa Valley, in Lebanon, the vast majority avoided the semi-official refugee camps, instead turning to the Church for help. At the beginning of 2014 Melkite Greek-Catholic Archbishop John Darwish of Furzol, Zahle and the Bekaa said: “They are afraid… they worry that their names will be given either to the Syrian government or the rebels… I don’t believe they have [any] real reason to be afraid, however, and we have tried to help matters by organising meetings between the families and representatives of the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.”
However, after initial attempts to register Christians for UN help, the UNHCR decided that with limited financial resources they would restrict aid to those in the camps. While most refugees in Zahle are looking for work to support their families, jobs are scarce. At best they can only find casual labour, and almost all of the refugees who are working still need the help of the Church to cover their bills. According to one analysis by the World Bank, Lebanon’s unemployment rate could reach 20 per cent by the end of 2014 because of the impact of the Syrian conflict on the country’s economy.
“Christians have received no support from the central government. They have done nothing for them, absolutely nothing”
The future of the Christian presence in Iraq and Syria remains uncertain. But the security and safety of the faithful is closely related to the presence of Islamist extremist groups in the region. While well-organised, militarised groups are active on the ground, bent on driving out all those who do not agree with their vision of Islam, there will be no security for the region’s Christians.
Dr John Newton, who works in the press and Information department of Aid to the Church in Need, visited Syrian and Iraqi refugees being helped by ACN-backed projects earlier this year.