By Mark von Riedemann
“It is time to take a principled stand: the situation calls for concrete action, a gesture of solidarity in the face of an existential crisis—‘we will either be or will not be.’”
It is an angry condemnation of an indifferent world. The words are unpolished and bitter. They exude disillusionment; they reject a world obsessed with consumption, in awe of comfort, blind to evil and deaf to the cry of the innocent. “In fact, speeches are good for nothing, so too declarations that rehash condemnations and indignation; the same can be said for protest marches.”
These words are taken from the Aug. 5, 2014, letter by Iraq’s Chaldean Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako. It is addressed to Pope Francis, his fellow prelates leading the Churches in the Middle East and the presidents of Catholic bishops’ conferences around the world. He laments the world’s silence about plight of Christians in his country. What is different about this letter, however, is the tone. Over the years the Patriarch has warned, cajoled, and appealed. Today he is shouting; a prophetic voice shouting that without immediate international intervention the ancient Christian community of Iraq will cease to exist.
When Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, there were more than 60,000 Christians living in Mosul. Today there are at most 200, mainly those too poor or weak to flee. This microcosm reflects the wider state of Christianity across Iraq. Prior to the 2003 US-led military invasion Christians numbered 1.4 million. Today the tally stands at 300,000 and, thanks to the rapid advance of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) across swathes of Syria and Iraq, those figures are declining rapidly. Patriarch Sako estimates that in the near future Christians could number only 50,000.
The militant Islamists seek to establish a caliphate across the Middle East. These Sunni jihadists embrace a radical form of Islam that echoes the 7thcentury. Anger at corrupt regimes, the exploitation of oil wealth by the West—and the moral decay of this same West—has engendered an aggressive, regressive ideology, rejecting all that does not coincide with this fundamentalist vision of Islam.
Local Christians too have been given an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay the ‘jizya’—a tax levied on an Islamic state’s non-Muslim citizens—leave or die. Half a million Christians and Muslims have fled seeking shelter in Christian villages near the Kurdish controlled regions in northern Iraq. In his letter, Patriarch Sako is no less stinging in his reproach of the silence of moderate Muslims: “We are equally shocked and indignant by the absence of a vigorous position taken by the Muslims and their religious leaders, not the least because the actions of these factions represent a menace for the Muslims themselves.”
This leaves the Church alone calling for the unity and the restoration of the religious mosaic that was Iraq. “As for the Church, she finds herself completely alone, more than ever; nevertheless her leaders are strongly required to react before it is too late in applying the necessary pressure on the international community as well as those other decision-makers in view of fundamental answers necessary to the scandalous crimes and the destructive conspiracies that affect, above all, unarmed citizens in Iraq, Syria, and in Palestine-Gaza.”
In an earlier, more hopeful interview with the Patriarch, I asked him about how he kept his faith. “It is not easy. Sometimes we are upset, we are exhausted,” he said. “I studied history—Christian history and ancient history in Iraq and also the Church fathers. It was the same situation. Our church was a martyr Church, but always there was hope—as Tertullian says the blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith and I think this is our hope and I do believe Islam will change. Islam cannot stay as it is now. Fundamentalism, extremism has no future.”
At this writing, there are reports that the US has begun executing bombing raids targeting the Islamic State in northern Iraq. Help may be on its way. Thanks be to God.
Mark von Riedemann is the International Director of Communications for Aid to the Church in Need.
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)www.acnmalta.org (Malta)