Ending the Persecution of Iraq’s Religious Minorities

Social media has been the source of two particularly gruesome photos of late: A recent photo posted on the Twitter account of the Australian-born jihadi Khaled Sharrouf showed Sharrouf’s 7-year-old son holding up the severed head of a Syrian soldier. The caption read, ‘That’s my boy’. The photo was taken in Raqqa, the Syrian city that now functions as the capital of the terrorist group calling itself the Islamic State (IS). A few days later, the British rapper-turned-jihadi Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, age 23–not to be outdone by the Aussie father and son duo–posted a photo of himself on Twitter posing with a decapitated head, with the caption ‘Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him’. Like the Sharrouf photo, it was taken in the central square of Raqqa. Both Sharrouf and Bary are IS fighters. It has been deeply disturbing to learn that Western-raised individuals who tweet can also decapitate their fellow human beings and then proudly display their ‘trophy’ heads, behaving–despite their tech-savvy–like Stone Age head hunters at the dawn of history.

It is the goal of IS, in fact, to ‘turn back the clock’, back to the early days of the Islamic Caliphate. In the self-described caliphate (and an ever-expanding caliphate) that IS has carved out for itself in Syria and Iraq, there is no place for Christians or other religious minorities: This, despite the fact that the church predates Islam in Iraq by six centuries. Iraqi Christians believe the Iraqi church was founded by the Apostle Thomas. After coming into contact with Catholic missionaries in the 16th century, the Iraqi church sought communion with the Roman Catholic Church, an affiliation which continues to this day. The majority of Christians in Iraq today (or what’s left of them) are members of this Rome-affiliated Chaldean Catholic church. Before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, there were 1.5 million Christians in the country; today there are only 350,000 – 450,000.

When IS conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, the terrorist group ordered Christians to convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax imposed on non-Muslims, or be put to death. There are no Christians in Mosul today. Many have fled to the Kurdish region in the north. Those who resisted IS were subjected to beheadings, crucifixions, abduction, rape, forced marriage, sex-slavery–brutality of the worst kind. The crosses on churches were torn down and replaced with black IS flags. The Arabic letter for ‘n’, nasarah or Nazarene, was put on the homes of Christians, marking them out for persecution. In the last few days, the eyes of the international community have been focused on the Yazidis, another persecuted religious minority in Iraq. Today, reports have come of the massacre of 80 Yazidi men who refused to convert to Islam.

As we look at the atrocities taking place in Iraq, the question facing us in the West is: How do we respond? Unlike previous generations, because of social media we will never be able to plead ignorance. Outraged at what is happening to the Chaldean Christians and other minorities, Pope Francis has roundly condemned the persecution. He has sent Cardinal Filoni to Erbil in the Kurdish region where many Christians have taken refuge, to study the needs of all the displaced minorities and come up with solutions for their housing and education. The Pope has accepted the need for military action to halt IS. Air strikes by the US have slowed, but not stopped, IS’ advance. Under pressure from the US, Iraq’s Prime Minister al-Maliki has agreed to step down and to be replaced by Haider al-Abadi, perceived by the US as more moderate than Maliki and as someone who will rebuild trust between the Shia-dominated Iraqi government and the country’s Kurds and Sunnis.

Papal condemnation, bombings, changing the prime minister: Will these measures stop IS? I don’t believe so. On August 12, the Vatican department in charge of inter-religious dialogue called on “religious leaders, and above all Muslim religious leaders, all people of good will” to unambiguously denounce the persecution of religious minorities in Iraq. I agree with the Pope: The solution to the scourge that is IS resides ultimately with Islam’s religious leaders. IS fighters believe they are carrying out Allah’s will and validate their actions based on texts in the Qur’an like the following:

The only reward of those who make war upon Allah and His messenger and strive after corruption in the land will be that they will be killed or crucified, or have their hands and feet on alternate sides cut off, or will be expelled out of the land…(5:33).

What is a Muslim living in the 21st century to make of a 7th century text such as this? Is it to be carried out literally? No one in the civilized world believes it is acceptable to crucify an opponent, or to convert someone at the point of a sword, or to kidnap a man’s wife or daughter and turn her into a sex-slave. Muslim apologists keep telling us that the concept of jihad has been misappropriated, that jihad refers to an ‘inner struggle’. If this is the case, then it is up to each and every Muslim religious leader to stress this non-violet form of jihad and at the same time to unambiguously denounce all acts of violence and all forms of persecution perpetrated by jihadis against non-Muslims.

Will this happen? There are obstacles that make this unlikely. For one thing, the Qur’an is regarded as Allah’s very words and therefore not open to criticism or reinterpretation. Another thing: There is no supreme authority or spokesman in Islam, no Muslim ‘Pope’. It is therefore incumbent upon individual Muslim leaders throughout the Muslim world to speak up. Have we heard anything yet from those Muslims leaders who attended the Pope’s prayer summit in the Vatican garden back in May? Just wondering.


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