Christians, others fighting to survive in age of Islamic State

Pope Francis has warned that Christians in the Middle East face genocide.
Pope Francis has warned that Christians in the Middle East face genocide. AP

The proliferation of violent extremists in the years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq has left Christians and other ancient communities in the Middle East fighting for survival as they are forced to “convert, pay a ruinous tax, or die,” according to a State Department report released Wednesday.

Non-state actors such as the Islamic State are now the world’s worst persecutors, a change from a century ago, when governments were the chief violators of religious freedom, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters as he introduced the department’s annual report on the state of religious freedom across the globe. The report compiles and analyzes events for 2014; attacks have continued unabated, so the numbers of dead and displaced are even higher now.

Though jihadists have killed exponentially more Muslims than non-Muslims, there’s a special focus on the targeting of Christians and minority sects because of fears they’ll be wiped out in their ancestral lands, an age-old presence erased as the Islamic State redraws the map of the region. The report emphasizes that in 2014 “members of religious minorities were disproportionately affected” by the violence from non-state actors who have “set their sights on destroying religious diversity.”

In Iraq, according to the State Department report, church leaders estimate that only about half a million Christians remain from a population that once numbered as many as 1.4 million. The report says that up to 200,000 Christians, some 300,000 Yazidis and thousands of Kakais are among nearly a million Iraqis who’ve been internally displaced.

“Entire populations of religious minority groups have been targeted for killing. Terrified young girls have been separated out by religion and sold into slavery,” Kerry told reporters.

Kerry vowed that the United States would continue to fight the extremists with “far more than words of condemnation.”

Prominent Christian leaders, however, say the United States and other superpowers aren’t doing enough to stop what Pope Francis has called the “genocide” of Christians in the Middle East. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and head of an international relief group based in Boone, N.C., also used that word in a Facebook post last week that said: “It is genocide – and the world seems largely silent about it.”

Across the Nineveh plain, church bells have pealed for 1,600 years. Today they are silent.

David Saperstein, State Department.

On a recent trip to the United States, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan didn’t hesitate to assign blame for the spread of extremist groups that have slaughtered, enslaved and seized property from vulnerable groups. The American occupation of Iraq gave rise to the precursor to the Islamic State and, according to critics of the Obama administration, the muddled response to the Syrian conflict has only sped up the demise of once-thriving communities.

If it won’t stop the bloodshed, Younan suggested, the West at least should fling open its doors to refugees.

“The flow of immigrants is a very direct result of the politics taken by Westerners,” Younan said, according to news reports. “These nations must accept refugees. Surely, refuges are not the best way to solve the crisis. But if the world believes in freedom of movement and the right of immigration, then these countries must welcome the refugees from policies they helped create.”

In Syria, ISIS has ‘systematically destroyed churches, Shiite shrines and other religious sites.’ Al Qaida’s Nusra Front ‘killed a Dutch priest . . . and seven Druze clerics.’

Though they face threats from many quarters, Christians and other minorities are most terrified by the gruesome attacks of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which often films atrocities in Iraq, Syria and Libya and distributes the videos online.

In one emblematic attack mentioned in the report, the Islamic State seized the predominantly Yazidi village of Kocho in Iraq and tried to forcibly convert residents.

“After several days of attempted conversion, ISIL separate Yazidi males from women and children and executed at least 100 men within the span of a few hours,” according to the report. “The remaining women and children were taken hostage by ISIL and forced into sexual slavery and servitude.”

And in Syria, the report notes, ISIS has “systematically destroyed churches, Shiite shrines and other religious sites,” though it’s not alone in the targeting of minorities. The Islamic State’s main jihadist rival, al Qaida’s Nusra Front, “killed a Dutch priest in Homs in April and seven Druze clerics and eight other Druze in August.”

Nusra fighters also have gone on kidnapping sprees, taking a Catholic priest and 20 other Christians from the Quenyeh village in October, in just one example.

David Saperstein, the State Department’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, acknowledged the frustration of besieged communities in the Middle East that claim the world has abandoned them – not just Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, he said, but the Mandaeans, the Shabak, the Yazidis and others.

Saperstein said he could outline U.S. relief efforts but that, in truth, the persecution would be difficult to reverse because “there is no magic button that can fix this.”

“We know what needs to be done. We’re working on those things – and pushing very hard – that will benefit the Christian community,” Saperstein said. “I mean, think about it. There’s been a Christian community there for 1,600 years. Across the Nineveh plain, church bells have pealed for 1,600 years. Today they are silent.”

Hannah Allam: 202-383-6186, @HannahAllam