This past June 15 was the first time in at least 1,600 years the Sunday Mass was not celebrated anywhere in Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq. Mosul’s many churches were closed by Sunni Muslim rebels belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which overran the city days before. A great majority of the Christian population of Mosul fled in terror when ISIS militants took control of the city.
In the atmosphere of terror, which began with the fall of Mosul to ISIS on June 11, ISIS fighters have publicly executed over 1,000 captured Iraqi soldiers and police officers. ISIS forces have also reportedly looted, desecrated and burned the Christian churches in the city. In accord with their fundamentalist reading of Islamic law, ISIS has imposed the jizya (a head tax signifying the subordination of non-Muslims) on the remaining Christian population and are requiring that Christian women wear the hijab, or veil, when in public.
Mar Louis Raphael Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, characterized the current situation as “perhaps the darkest and most difficult period in (the Church’s) recent history.” A few days ago, after publicly appealing for the release of two Chaldean Catholic nuns and three orphaned children abducted by armed men in broad daylight in Mosul on June 30, Archbishop Sako reflected that Iraqi Christians are now living a time reminiscent of the mystery when Jesus slept in the boat while the storm raged and his disciples terrified (Mk 4:35-41). “Despite everything,” he noted, “we do not despair. We are invited and pressed to awaken Christ, to take advantage of our faith and continue in a calm sea.”
The majority of Iraqi Christians are Catholics belonging to the Eastern Syrian or Chaldean Church. Others belong to either the Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox or the ancient Church of the East. As throughout the entire Middle East, there are Armenian Orthodox Christians in Iraq as well as small Protestant communities.
These ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria date back to the earliest days of Christianity. Although Iraqi Christians speak Arabic, the liturgical language of the Church of the East; the language of Chaldean Catholics and Syrian Orthodox Christians, is Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus and his first disciples. Christian monks have peacefully established Christian churches and monasteries on the west coast of India, and in the cities and towns of the Silk Road in present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Tibet, Mongolia and China.
Although long a minority in a region where most people are either Sunni or Shia Muslims, prior to the U.S. invasion in 2003, there were an estimated 1.2 million Christians in Iraq, about 2 percent of the population. In the aftermath of the invasion, occupation and ensuing chaos and sectarian violence, Christian churches and neighborhoods were increasingly attacked by extremist Muslim groups intent on driving them out of the country. So many Iraqi Christians have fled that only an estimated 400,000 remain. Most sought refuge in Syria and Jordan, although the outbreak of civil war in Syria has forced refugees there to seek haven in Lebanon and Turkey.
Catholic Relief Services reports that 500,000 Sunni, Shia and Christian refugees have fled from Mosul to Erbil and Kirkuk in the Kurdish controlled part of Iraq. The influx of refugees has strained local housing and other resources to the breaking point. Those refugees who are not able to find shelter with family, friends or in hastily established refugee camps are being housed in churches, mosques, schools, clinics and empty buildings in crowded and difficult conditions, with multiple families sharing a single room as well as facilities for bathing and sanitation.
Yohanna Petros Moshe, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, appealing for an end to the violence in his country notes, “Qaraquosh and the other cities of the Ninevah plain (towns and cities with majority Christian populations) have been for a long time places of peace and co-existence. We Christians are unarmed, and as Christians we have not fueled any conflict or problems with the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in our country. We just want to live in peace, work with everyone and respect everyone.”
Pope Francis, speaking last month, after noting that the persecution of Christians is even stronger than during the first three centuries of the Church, stressed the foundational importance of religious liberty. He stressed that “Religious freedom is a fundamental right of man, reflecting his highest dignity, that of seeking the truth and adhering to it. … (It) is not simply freedom of thought or private worship. It is the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, consequent to the truth one has found.”
As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, let us remember the beleaguered Christian community of Iraq, especially in prayer, and seek ways to do all we can to support them and other refugees in the region. Let us also, as citizens of this nation conceived in liberty, recommit ourselves to the defense of religious freedom, both in our own country and wherever it is threatened.