Christians in Iraq: should they stay or should they go?

  • Written by:

Giles Fraser
Christians are being butchered by Isis, yet the church’s leaders are encouraging congregations to stay. But is preserving Christian history in the Middle East more important than personal safety?
An Iraqi Christian woman fleeing the violence in Mosul sits inside the Sacred Heart of Jesus Chaldean Church in Telkaif in the province of Nineveh, July 2014. Photograph: Reuters

The Isis frontline was only an hour’s drive south, so maybe I was a bit on edge. But Fr Emmanuel was really starting to wind me up. Instead of sharing a meal and discussing the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi church, we had begun to argue about why Christianity was dwindling in the Middle East. He said that Europeans who welcomed Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq were “completing the uncompleted mission of Isis”. Western liberals like me were complicit in the de-Christianisation of the Middle East by allowing Iraqi Christians too easy a route out of their historic homeland, he said. There are push and pull factors to Christians abandoning the Middle East. Isis is the push and we are the pull. Well, let’s just say I didn’t take too kindly to the comparison with Isis. As tensions mounted, one of the bishops present suggested we say the Lord’s Prayer together, each in our own language.
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“Aboon D’bashmayo…” he began. Our Father, which art in heaven. Fr Emmanuel prayed in Aramaic, the language in which Jesus first taught the prayer to his disciples. It’s a language that’s still used by Christians in an area that stretches from the edge of Iran through northern Iraq and across the Nineveh plains into north-eastern Syria – yes, much of it Isis territory. Fr Emmanuel’s church was formed in the first century and by those known to the apostles – as opposed to my church which was formed in the 16th century by a priapic bully looking for a divorce. A bit more humility, I said to myself. Listen again to his argument.

Christianity is being wiped from the Middle East, he said. In 2003 there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq. Now it’s about 300,000 and still dropping fast. Isis is murdering Christians all over the place. In Mosul, Fr Emmanuel’s home town, Christians were especially targeted after the US invasion of Iraq. Back in 2008, Mosul’s archbishop was snatched from his car and discovered in a shallow grave a week later. And when Isis arrived in 2014 – welcomed by the majority of the local population, Fr Emmanuel insists – the Christian community had “N” for Nazarene daubed on its doors. The Isis message to Christians is: convert or die.

In the face of all this, the church’s leadership tells its people to be brave, to stay and endure, that in them the very existence of Christianity in the Middle East is at stake. And that’s true – it is. But my problem is that Fr Emmanuel and much of his church’s leadership do not practise what they preach. After an attempt on his life, Fr Emmanuel now operates out of the German spa town of Wiesbaden. And until last November the leadership of his church, the Assyrian Church of the East, was based a little further west than its name suggests, in Chicago, Illinois.

I totally understand why they want to be far from Mosul. But they shouldn’t emotionally strongarm their congregations into staying when they themselves won’t. Iraqi Christians have every right to place the protection of their families higher up the list of priorities than the historical continuity of Christianity in the Middle East. And I say this in full knowledge that this is holy week, when Christians are called to follow in the way of the cross. But going the way of the cross is not something academic in Mosul – Isis is still crucifying Christians. Yes, I’d probably run away too. So did the disciples, remember.

“And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Fr Emmanuel and I continued. Yes, forgive even those murderous bastards of the black flag. Yes, forgive them even when they think that our forgiveness makes us weak and foolish. For the death of Christ is not a martyrdom operation designed to expand the muscle of the Christian tribe. Either the church survives because of its message of reconciliation – an idea Fr Emmanuel wasn’t so keen on – or it has no business surviving. We are not saved by men with Kalashnikovs. Nor by the numerical vitality of our pews. We are saved by being forgiven. The terrifying existential vulnerability of the Iraqi church reminds me that everything is on the line in trusting so audacious a claim.