Christian leaders express shock at world silence after ISIS expels Iraqi Christians
By: Roula Ibrahim
Published Thursday, July 24, 2014
The patriarchal residence in the town of Atchanah in Lebanon’s Metn region brought together yesterday representatives of the churches of Mosul five days after the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forced Iraqi Christians out of the city. This is the first time that Mosul’s Christian population has been driven out of the city and is the largest forced displacement since the Armenian genocide. Nevertheless, there are people who still believe in returning despite a Western and Arab failure to act.
Until last week, ISIS was just a “joke” or a “boogieman created by the Syrian regime to scare minorities and keep them by its side.” That is why kidnapping the two bishops, Boulos al-Yazigi and Youhana Ibrahim, near Aleppo a year and a half ago did not serve as an adequate warning of how serious and extremist these fundamentalist movements are. The occupation of Maaloula and the burning of its churches did not change anything in the Syrian scene and the kidnapping of the nuns was not met with a response proportional to the crime. All this passed in absolute lightness as some Lebanese politicians scoffed at the fundamentalist danger: this is the people’s revolution.
Last February, ISIS issued a decree similar to Mosul’s decree in the Syrian city of al-Raqqa, asking Christians to pay a religious levy in gold and minimize the appearances of any of their religious paraphernalia. Then they began carrying out judgements based on “Islamic law” from lashes to killing, crucifixions and stoning. But it is that same old lightness - intentional perhaps - that drove some to say “there are people extending the life of the regime by fabricating news and videos and misleading journalists and foreign news agencies.” That is why it took ISIS crossing the Syrian border towards Iraq for some people to become conscious of the danger... and recognize it, if only to avoid embarrassment.
Last Saturday was the deadline that ISIS gave Christians in Mosul to either convert to Islam, pay a religious levy, leave the city or die by the sword. As a result, about 10,000 Christians left Mosul. Nothing like this has happened since the Armenian genocide in Turkey about a hundred years ago.
Ignatius Aphrem II, patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Antioch and All the East, said that most of the Christian families fled to Kurdistan and the Nineveh Plains while others went to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Remarkably, Aphrem II said that some families insisted on staying in Mosul, adding: “we lost contact with them.” Until now, “there is no information whatsoever about the fate of these families,” he confirmed.
Yesterday Aphrem II headed a meeting at the patriarchal residence in Atchanah - Bikfaya, five days after the “war crime,” as he called it in his message, that included representatives of the five churches found in Mosul to discuss the situation of Christians in the city. The ecclesiastic gathering was large, it included patriarchal vicar of the Syriac Catholic Patriarchal Diocese, Youhanna Jihad Battah, Chaldean bishop of Lebanon, Michel Kasarji, priest of the Assyrian Church of the East in Lebanon, Fr. Yathroun Koulianos, general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches, Fr. Michel Jalkh, Fr. Carlo Yeshuah, associate secretaries of the Middle East Council of Churches, Deacon Jimmy Danho and Mr. Elias Halabi, bishops of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Lebanon, president of the Syriac League, Habib Afram in addition to the Iraqi cleric Abdel Rahim al-Musawi, Iraq’s Ambassador in Lebanon Dr. Raad al-Alousi and Iraq’s consul in Lebanon, Dr. Walid Abdel Qader al-Issa.
In his message, Patriarch Aphrem II condemned incidents “considered barbaric and unprecedented in the history of Christian-Muslim relations in this region. ISIS systematically forced Christians out of the city of Mosul labeling them with racist signs and symbols, humiliating and luting them.” He called on Muslims and their leaders to “take a clear stance,” expressing astonishment at the prevailing silence “except for some Muslim religious leaders and civil dignitaries.” He went on to say that injustices such as “burning churches and taking over holy sites will not compel us to ask for Western protection or help.”
He declared however: “We are going to address the United Nations (UN) and the highest international and human rights fora to hold them accountable to the Bill of Rights they claim to support.” He called on the Iraqi government and “Kurdish brothers” to protect Christians. He also said that an urgent meeting will be convened soon with the patriarchs of the East and a Christian delegation from the East will be formed to take this issue before the UN and other international platforms.
In response to a question on whether the church is in contact with Iraqi authorities, Ephram II said there is no direct coordination with any of the civil or political authorities in Iraq but the bishops are in contact with Kurdish authorities to “secure a decent living for our children.” The patriarch asserted that “these terrorist parties are supported by states.” At the same time, he held the Iraqi government responsible for the security and safety of Iraqi Christians.
Sheikh Abdel Rahim al-Musawi described what is happening as “ethnic cleansing. It is our moral, national and religious duty to stand in solidarity. Not just stand in solidarity but we should go a lot further than that, we should go to the highest international organizations in the world to put a stop to this abuse of people’s lives, blood and property.”
The conference, which was broadcast live on a number of TV stations, did not last more than half an hour. However, as expected, its resonance ended with the end of the broadcast. Iraq’s Christians were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2003 and now they are going through the same experience again after 11 years amid a lethal Western and Arab silence. One of the churches of Mosul, built 1,500 years ago, was burned and crosses have been removed from other churches.
Mosul’s Christian families have fled to relatively safe areas in Iraq. Most of them today are housed in schools or are simply out on the sidewalks as they wait for refugee camps to be built or to be transferred to decent housing. According to those present, there are no armed Christian groups except those guarding villages and cities.
This is the first time that Mosul is emptied of its Christians amid fear that ISIS might reach other areas in the Nineveh province. Patriarch Aphrem II and the heads of other churches are trying as much as possible to put pressure on relevant parties, for “we still believe in returning.” In the end, they issued a message to the Lebanese media: “Mosul deserves a united news bulletin like Gaza.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.