Maria* held her baby in her arms, as she spoke about running from her home and town, in early August, when her family heard that ISIS fighters were approaching. Sarah,* a student at Suleimani University, was at home with her family for the summer break, when they fled together. Our team met them just after they came for refuge at the Virgin Mary Monastery in Iraqi Kurdistan, city of Suleimani.
Among them were teachers, church leaders, doctors, university students, children, babies, grandparents—people of all ages and occupations–suddenly uprooted from their homes, work, and schools, with just the clothes on their backs. Now they crowd with 160 others, in small rooms, and even behind curtains in the chapel. They take turns cooking for their communal meals.
In the Chuar Chra neighborhood of Suleimani, on the grounds of a new Christian church and school, thirty families sleep in tents, while Christians in the neighborhood bring in and prepare food for them. Even more families stay in several larger tent camps around the edges of Erbil. The Christian churches in northern Iraq are sponsoring the displaced Christians, and families receive a small food allotment from International and Kurdish aid agencies.
They were part of the mass evacuation of thousands of non-Sunni Muslims in northern Iraq, displaced by threat and terror from the Islamic State (ISIS) forces. This included Shia Muslims, Yazidis, Shabak, Turkmen, Christians, Mandeans, Ba’his, the non-religious, and people from several other smaller religious groups. Those living in Mosul had left their city in June and July after ISIS forces required them to convert to Islam or be killed. In August, many of the Yazidis from Sinjar, were not allowed to escape, but were either killed or kidnapped and then given as wives to ISIS soldiers, sold as slaves, or kept as hostages to prevent the US from attacking them. (I’m sad to think the brutality of ISIS is not much greater than that of the Crusades in past history, slaughtering Muslims because they were not Christian.)
The Christian Church has always been in the minority in Iraq, but has a long history going back to the first century AD. The majority of the Iraqi Christians belong to the branches of the Syriac Church, made up of ethnic Assyrians. This includes the Chaldean Catholic Church (the largest church in Iraq), the Syriac Orthodox Church, Syriac Catholic Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East. In their worship, Chaldeans and Assyrian Christians use ancient forms of Aramaic, closely related to the dialect that Jesus spoke. The six to ten Protestant churches in Iraq—Evangelical Presbyterian and Seventh Day Adventist and a few independent groups—came to Iraq through missionary movements since the 1920s.
Under Saddam, Christians, as a group, were generally protected and not persecuted, except for during the Anfal (genocide against the Kurds in the 1980s), when Saddam’s regime killed approximately 182,000 non-Arabs, including 2,000 Assyrian Christians, and destroyed approximately 4,500 Kurdish and 31 Assyrian villages in northern Iraq. But after the March 2003 U.S. war on Iraq, violence against Christians increased. Some of the violence was from Muslims who opposed the presence of Christians in their communities, but many Iraqis have told us that Muslim and non-religious Iraqis identified the Christians with western values and the war and occupation initiated by President Bush, and then took their anger toward America out on Iraqi Christians.
In spite of this, during the past 12 years, churches in Iraq were not bombed or destroyed in a greater proportion than Mosques, or Christians killed than Muslims. There was a wave of killing and kidnapping of Christian leaders in 2007, a time when there was also increased violence against Sunni Muslims. More Christians have been able to immigrate to other countries, because they have generally had more money. It’s a perception in the U.S. that mainly Christians have been persecuted, because the American media gives more attention to violence against Christians than against other religious groups. And many Americans don’t see the deaths of Muslim people as important as the deaths of Christians.
The current threat and violence of ISIS has been horrific, but local Kurdish and Iraqi people are defying the spirit of divisiveness and hate with caring responses. Muslims and Christians have been speaking out and protesting violence against the other. Christians and Muslims have been speaking out and protesting violence against Yazidis, as well as publicly countered anti-Arab retoric. We accompanied Kurdish Iraqi activists from different backgrounds, as they delivered collected goods to displaced Yazidis, Christians, and Arab Iraqis.
With Kurdish human rights workers, we visited two large tent displacement camps in the Duhok area for the Yazidis, just arriving from Sinjar. The people shared with us their pain and their urgent needs. We weren’t able to do much more than to just be with them, listen, and let them know that we and Christians around the world cared about them. They were grateful that we would tell their stories and ask countries and agencies to respond to their desperate cries for help.
When revisiting the monastery weeks after first meeting Sarah and Marie and the other Christian families, I noticed a change. Children still ran and played around the courtyard, but their parents’ eyes looked more tired, some almost expressionless. Though people are reaching out to help them, they see no change in their precarious situation. Their homelessness continues without any end in sight, and it seems to erode the hope they’ve held on to.
The journey toward healing in this society, torn apart by war, will be long and difficult. But every time people resist the sectarianism, the hatred, and crushing of the human spirit and speak and act for reconciliation and understanding, they take a step forward.
Peggy Faw Gish is currently working in Iraqi Kurdistan with the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and has worked in Iraq over the past 12 years. Her recent book is Walking Through Fire: Iraqis’ Struggle for Justice and Reconciliation (Cascade Books, 2013)