At the beginning of the second millennium, 1.4 million Christians lived in Iraq, co-existing, as they had for centuries, alongside their Muslim neighbours. By 2010, that number had dropped to 500,000, and today, a dwindling 150,000 Christians remain in the country. While other Islamic extremist groups have targeted Christians in the past, the grand ambitions of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are threatening these communities with extinction.
The Christian communities of Iraq are among the oldest Christian communities in the world. Some of these communities can trace their lineage back to 60 CE and the Church at Antioch, which was the first Christian church established outside of Jerusalem. The existence of these ancient church communities precedes the presence of Islam in the region by about six hundred years.
Beheadings, executions and amputations, as well as the destruction of churches, monasteries and historical treasures, have forced Christians to flee. ISIS has threatened those that remain in territories under its control with death, saying “there is nothing to give them but the sword.”
Iraqi Christians are not the only people that ISIS is targeting. ISIS has targeted Shiite Muslims, as well as Sunni Muslims who challenge them. The Yazidi are also under threat. As increasing numbers of civilians flee from ISIS, the humanitarian crisis escalates.
One of the grand goals of ISIS is to create a pan-Islamic state in the Middle East. The other name by which ISIS is known, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), indicates the scope of the group’s ambition to reshape the Middle East according to its ideology. The Levant refers to the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean, among them Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Turkey.
While ISIS claims to be a caliphate with authority over Muslims worldwide, leading Muslim authorities, including the influential muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, have rejected and denounced the terrorist group. So have various Muslim organizations, such as the Arab League and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.
The ISIS idea of a caliphate contrasts starkly with the great caliphates of history, which were open and tolerant, and welcomed Muslims, Jews and Christians. The Abbasid caliphate, for example, welcomed leaders of all faiths to its “House of Wisdom”. (Ironically, given the present-day reality, the “House of Wisdom” was located in the caliphate’s capital city of Baghdad.) In this cultural and intellectual melting pot, Muslim and non-Muslim scholars explored science, mathematics, astronomy, physics and philosophy. They collected, translated and preserved antiquity’s great texts.
Unlike the ISIS “wannabe” caliphate with its crimes against humanity, the Abbasid caliphate advanced humanity through inclusive communities centered on the pursuit of knowledge. The ISIS attacks against Iraqi Christians, the destruction of their churches and antiquities, and the crimes perpetrated on other civilians are hallmarks of terror.
It will take decades to mitigate the humanitarian crisis unfolding as people flee from ISIS and seek safety in refugee camps. It may be impossible to restore the Christian communities that were among the most ancient in the world.
Trail, BC resident Louise McEwan is a freelance religion writer with degrees in English and Theology.