It is important to note that attacks on Christians in Iraq did not begin in 2014 with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) takeover of large swaths of land. The mass flight and de-rooting of Christians in Iraq began in 2003 and continues to this day. This persecution is inextricably linked to the instability and ongoing sectarian conflict which exploded during the U.S.-led conflict. Christian persecution under militant Islamic insurgent groups during the U.S. war eventually fed into persecution and genocide at the hands of ISIS. It is estimated that over two-thirds of the Christian population either fled Iraq, or was internally displaced between 2003 until 2011.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Al-Qaeda capitalized on the anger of disenfranchised Sunnis who had been marginalized after the “de-Baathification” Iraqi civil and military services. Under this U.S. policy, any person who had been a member of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party was terminated from their employment, denied public-sector employment and prevented from accessing their pensions.
Al-Qaeda seized on anger over these policies for recruitment and eventually an Al-Qaeda in Iraq was born to wage an insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq. After the U.S. troop surge of 2007, Al-Qaeda in Iraq took a large hit though still held on to sympathizers and supporters in Iraq. With the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011, what remained of Al-Qaeda in Iraq moved into Syria and eventually formed ISIS.
As Syria continued to destabilize due to the ongoing civil war, ISIS captured the cities of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor. In the summer of 2014, ISIS, in a lightning offensive, captured Mosul in northern Iraq, Ramadi and Fallujah to the east and drove south until almost reaching Baghdad. ISIS spread its self-styled caliphate from Turkey’s border with Syria to Fallujah in Iraq, encompassing an area roughly the size of the state of Indiana.
It’s important to note that the creation of ISIS stems not only from religious fanaticism, or the U.S. invasion of Iraq, but also intersecting factors such as the destructive rise of sectarianism across the Middle East, repressive governments, power vacuums left behind from internal conflicts, including the Arab Spring, and proxy interest by outside regional and international powers.
Christian exodus from ISIS
The ISIS invasion in Iraq during the summer of 2014, forced Christians to flee the jihadist group and find refugee in Iraqi Kurdistan and surrounding countries, such as Jordan and Turkey. After Mosul fell, ISIS demanded Christians under their territory convert to Islam, pay tribute, or face execution, by a set date of July 19, 2014. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi further noted that Christians who do not agree with those terms must “leave the borders of the Islamic Caliphate” within the specified deadline. The militants painted a red Arabic ‘‘n,’’ for Nasrane, a slur, on Christian homes to identify them. These acts resulted in the complete exodus of Christians from Mosul which marked the end of continuous Christian presence for over 1,700 years. It also marked the first time a church mass would not be held in 1,800 years in Mosul.
“I cry for my country. I cry for Baghdad. I cry for the history and the glory days. I cry for the artists, for the water, for the trees. I cry for my religion. I cry for my beliefs.”-Iraqi poem
By August 2014, ISIS had captured the Assyrian towns of Qaraqosh, Tel Keppe, Bartella, and Karamlish in the Nineveh Plains. Approximately 100,000 Iraqi Christians were forced to flee their homes and leave all their property, including currency and gold, behind. Many Christians were left with only the clothes on their backs. Christians who fled their homes for safety were forced to live with extended family or in construction sites, parking structures, churches, un-winterized tents, and parks with little access to food, water, sanitation, or medical care.
“ … We know that [ISIS] has threatened Christians by saying that it will, quote, ‘conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women.'”-Secretary of State John Kerry
Many Christians brought with them tales of executions, beheadings, kidnappings, forced conversions, and seizure of homes and property. Christian families were separated, children taken, and women raped and forced into the ISIS sex trade along with Yazidi women.
Destruction of ancient Christian cultural artifacts
Beyond physical displacement and punishment, ISIS has made a systematic effort to destroy the cultural heritage of ancient communities. This includes destroying Christian churches, blowing up monasteries and the tombs of prophets, desecrating cemeteries and ancient Assyrian artifacts. This campaign is part of the genocide of Christians and destruction of Christian history and identity in Iraq.
ISIS fighters ransacked the Mosul Museum and destroyed centuries-old manuscripts and books in its library, bulldozed the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, and demolished parts of the 2,000-year-old Unesco World Heritage City of Hatra. The destruction of Nimrud, an Assyrian site over 3,300 years old, has been described as a “war crime” by Unesco.
Unesco’s Director General Irina Bokova denounced the destruction of Hatra as “a turning point in the appalling strategy of cultural cleansing underway in Iraq”
The monastery of St. Elijah, which stood for more than 1,400 years above a riverbed south of the city of Mosul, was raised by ISIS in 2014. A Christian member of Parliament, Yonadam Kanna, said the destruction of St. Elijah, Iraq’s oldest monastery and “one of the most historical” in the country, was more evidence of the goal to destroy the identity of Iraq’s Christians.
Declared a genocide
On March 17, 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry stated that ISIS is responsible for genocide against minority groups, including Yezidis, Christians and Shia Muslims. ISIS has been accused of massacres, forced slavery and sexual slavery, forced conversions, destruction of cultural heritage, destruction of property and the desire to destroy the unique religious and ethnic identities of Iraq’s minority groups.
Besides Christians, other religious minorities in Iraq have been affected as well and in large numbers: the Yazidis, Shia Turkmen, Shabak, Kaka’i and the Mandeans, who follow John the Baptist. As David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador at large for religious freedom said, ‘‘Everyone has seen the forced conversions, crucifixions and beheadings. To see these communities, primarily Christians, but also the Yazidis and others, persecuted in such large numbers is deeply alarming.’’
“The fact is that Daesh kills Christians because they are Christians; Yezidis because they are Yezidis; Shia because they are Shia. This is the message it conveys to children under its control. Its entire worldview is based on eliminating those who do not subscribe to its perverse ideology. There is no question in my mind that if Daesh succeeded in establishing its so-called caliphate, it would seek to destroy what remains of ethnic and religious mosaic once thriving in the region.”-Secretary of State John Kerry
As of a result of this genocide, the Christian population of Iraq, which before 2003 numbered as many as 1.4 million, had dwindled to 350,000 by early 2014, and since ISIS is now estimated as under 250,000.
- Genocide Against Assyrian Christians in ISIS-Controlled Territory, Iraqi Christian Relief Council and Philos Project
- Remarks on Daesh and Genocide, John Kerry, Secretary of State
- ‘No Way Home: Iraq’s minorities on the verge of disappearance’ report, Minority Rights International
- ‘Genocide against Christians in the Middle East’ report, Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians
- Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?, New York Times
- Genocidal Attacks Against Christian and Other Religious Minorities in Syria and Iraq, US Congress Joint Subcommittee Hearing