The headlines are bleak: ‘Iraq’s beleaguered Christians are making their last stand’; ‘Iraq’s Christians have suffered their deadliest attacks since 2003’; ‘ISIS terrorists target native Assyrian Christians’.
These headlines are genuine and true. The shocking advances made by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or Syria (ISIS), a ferociously effective jihadi organisation, have seen a virtual collapse of the Iraqi armed forces’ resistance in many areas. Key oilfields have been lost, as well as major cities and border crossings.
There have been calls for the US to bomb ISIS into submission, met by counterarguments that such drastic action would only create a united Iraqi front against Western powers that have done too much damage already.
When US forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011, they left a functioning government, a well-trained military and a sense of hope. That has all gone, leaving a contested space in which the position of minorities is precarious in the extreme. There have been reports of public crucifixions, while no Masses have been celebrated in Mosul for the first time in 1600 years. The horrors over the border in Syria, the determination of the Kurds to hold what they have and the declared interest of Iran all speak of a region that has been tipped over the brink. Christians are more exposed than ever.
However, according to those who know the region best, we do them no favours when we speak and write as though their suffering is unique. Speaking after the ISIS rebels’ seizure of the historic Christian centre of Mosul, chief executive of Embrace the Middle East, Jeremy Moodey, said: ‘Iraqi Christians have endured a terrible situation since the fall of Saddam in 2003, but so have all Iraqis.
‘Within 48 hours of the cathedral attack in October 2010, more than twice as many Iraqis, most of them Shias, were killed in a series of bomb attacks across Baghdad. This received much less attention in the Western media than the cathedral atrocity.’
He adds: ‘We Christians in the West are forced to ask ourselves: will we focus only on the suffering of our co-religionists in the Middle East, or will we see that people of all faiths are suffering terribly from violence and sectarian strife? If we continue to show interest only in the fate of Iraqi Christians, we are ultimately doing them a disservice.’
Rev Andrew White spoke to Premier Christianity from Baghdad, where he is the vicar of St George’s Church. ‘Both Shias and Christians are in a very dangerous position. Everyone is suffering, everyone is at risk. It’s important to realise that it’s not just the Christians, we are all in it together.
‘Iraq, despite the bombings and the terror, has been fairly controlled. Now it is in total crisis,’ he said. White says that many Christians fled Baghdad for Mosul, the community’s ancient homeland. Then ISIS came. ‘Now they have fled up north to Kurdistan and to small villages. ISIS said that either the Christians should leave, or they should convert and pay tax, or they would get their heads chopped off.’
Nevertheless, it is ‘not a Christian issue’, according to international lawyer and Church consultant Dr Harry Hagopian. Speaking to Middle East North Africa Analysis (MENA) on Premier Christian Radio, he said: ‘This is a Muslim issue on who runs Iraq.’
He added: ‘Everyone is affected by the violence, everyone is affected by refugee-hood, by the internally displaced status they get as a result of the violence. But at the end of the day, to portray the violence as something anti-Christian would be highly disingenuous.’
The figures are truly horrifying. According to Christian Aid, which has launched a special Iraq appeal, half a million people have fled from Mosul and the surrounding areas alone. There were already 225,000 Syrian refugees in northern Iraq – and many others who, ironically, fled years ago to Syria for refuge, now find themselves returning as refugees again.
What the future holds is unclear, and it is changing by the day. Moodey says that the ‘Balkanisation’ of the whole region is likely, with Iraq and possibly Syria divided into spheres of influence by competing groups.
Christian satellite broadcaster SAT-7, whose chief executive Dr Terence Ascott visited Iraq just before Mosul fell, is preparing to treat Iraq as three countries, visiting the Kurdish and Baghdad areas separately. It believes that there is the real possibility that the country will remain in a state of partition, with Christians able to live out their faith only in either the Kurdish or Shia areas.
In the meantime, Christians suffer along with the rest of the population – and somehow manage to work to be light in the deepest darkness. White, whose work with religious leaders has borne fruit before, is bringing the main Sunni leaders together again in an attempt at reconciliation. He said: ‘The best thing to hope and pray for is that reconciliation efforts will work, and that we are able to provide for the needs of the Christians.
‘Prayers are great, but we also need food, water and shelter. We have to be able to respond and make this happen. It is so difficult, so painful and so dangerous.’
• To listen to Premier Christian Radio’s Middle East North Africa Analysis, visit premier.org.uk/mena
• For more information about Canon Andrew White’s work, visit the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, frrme.org
• Read our feature on the persecution of Christians in Iraq