When many Westerners hear the word “Iraq” today, they may think that it has always been a majority-Muslim country. Yet, the Middle East region, including modern-day Iraq, has a pre-Islamic history for over millennia-long. This region is also the ancient land of the indigenous Assyrian people and an immensely significant place for Christianity.
In fact, the land now known as Iraq is often referred to as the birthplace of the Bible. This land –also called the “cradle of civilization” – is where Christianity was brought to light during the first century. This was through the work of Thomas the Apostle and Mar Addai (Addai of Edessa) and his pupils Aggai and Mari.
Iraq is where Assyrians, amongst the oldest of Christian communities, have lived for millennia. Since the 7th century Islamic invasion of the region, Christian communities have been persecuted at the hands of Muslims. This persecution peaked in 2014 when the Islamic State (ISIS) invaded Iraq’s Christian towns and villages in an attempt to establish an Islamic caliphate.
On August 6, 2014, Iraqi Christians faced unimaginable persecution and fled their homes during the invasion of Iraq by ISIS. That day, also called “The Black Day,” is when innocent lives were uprooted, families torn apart, and ancient Christian communities displaced from their ancestral lands.
As ISIS advanced through northern Iraq, home to a significant indigenous Christian population, many were given an ultimatum: convert to Islam, pay a hefty religious tax (jizya), or face death.
Following ISIS’ 2014 capture of Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, Archbishop Athanasius Toma Dawod of the Syriac Orthodox church said:
“Now we consider it genocide – ethnic cleansing. They are killing our people in the name of Allah and telling people that anyone who kills a Christian will go straight to heaven: that is their message. They have burned churches; they have burned very old books. They have damaged our crosses and statues of the Virgin Mary. They are occupying our churches and converting them into mosques.”
A 2014 report submitted by the European Centre for Law and Justice to the UN Human Rights Council describes some of the atrocities committed by ISIS:
“Torture, intentionally targeting civilians, killing soldiers in custody and unable to defend themselves, desecrating corpses, genocide, and the like are commonplace with ISIS. They all constitute war crimes.
“In Mosul, Christians faced death unless they converted or paid a fine, called Jizya, in accordance with Sharia. In Mosul, ISIS militants tagged Christian houses with the letter ‘N’ for Nassarah, a common term used for Christians in the Quran so that jihadist terrorists could attack them.
“Nearly 50,000 Christians have been displaced from Qaraqosh, including those who fled from neighboring Mosul.”
Dr Ewelina U. Ochab, a lawyer and co-founder of the Coalition for Genocide Response, also notes ISIS mass atrocities against Christians and other monitories:
“Over these two years [from 2014 to 2016], Daesh [ISIS] committed murder, enslavement, deportation and forcible transfer of population, imprisonment, torture, abduction of women and children, exploitation, abuse, rape, sexual violence, forced marriage – unabated. During this time, many areas of the Nineveh Plains were subjected to destruction by Daesh fighters who looted homes, shops, schools, and churches. The Daesh’ fighters confiscated all valuables and possessions and burned down houses. The destruction of villages sent a clear message—the looting was about more than just financial gains. Daesh wanted to destroy all signs of the religious communities who had inhabited the area for centuries and eradicated evidence of their existence.”
Yet 9 years later, those displaced Iraqi Christians – many of whom are living in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey – still need help and are struggling with many difficulties such as severe poverty.
Despite the fact that much of the international community has forgotten the victims of the ISIS genocide, some American organizations have never stopped supporting them. Among them are the American Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (American FRRME) and the Iraqi Christian Relief Council.
Due to the large influx of Iraqi refugees in Madaba, Jordan, for instance, American FRRME opened the Olive Tree Center in 2019 to help those Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan.
Max Wood, a Retired Colonel U.S. Air Force and the Chairman of the American FRRME, said that the most urgent need of Iraqi Christian refugee is access to quality medical care.
“We simply have never had the funds to make such arrangements on their behalf. Additionally, the freedom to work in Jordan would be a huge help, as right now Christian refugees are not allowed to work in Jordan.”
Woods said that the US government should pay more attention to the needs of the Iraqi Christians:
“Unfortunately, the US government policy rarely sees the Iraqi Christians as its own unique humanitarian crisis. There are so many problems in Iraq that the problems of the Christians there simply get lumped in with those of other groups. US policy should include financial assistance designated for Iraq’s Nineveh Province. That’s the only way we can come close to guaranteeing assistance actually gets to the Christians in a region ripe with corruption. I personally would like to see more engagement from the US Ambassador for Religious Freedom on this issue. I believe a visit to Iraq by this Ambassador would bring attention to their plight and would generate tangible benefits including but not limited to more funding for the recovery in Nineveh Province.
“And more targeting US policy efforts to make returning to Iraq easier.
“Counties that have offered temporary refugee status often make the exit from that country difficult. We have learned that working in Jordan and are confident similar roadblocks exist in other countries. Better treatment for Iraqi Christians should be a required deliverable for US aid to these receiving countries.”
Juliana Taimoorazy, the founding president of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council, said:
“As the Iraqi Christians battle displacement and an unknown future, their most urgent need in many cases is medical attention. Refugees suffer from heart disease, diabetes and in many cases, they are battling cancer. Unfortunately, the health care system is not widely available to many of these families and their relatives in the diaspora, thus organizations such as the Iraqi Christian Relief Council have to resume responsibility to pay for the medical needs on a monthly basis for many of these families in countries they reside in.”
As for what Western foreign policy on Iraq should be, Taimoorazy said:
“The US invasion of Iraq unraveled the beautiful tapestry of this ancient community in Iraq; therefore, the US has a moral obligation to come alongside this and other vulnerable communities in Iraq. The question rises here; does the US foreign policy really care about the plight of the Iraqi Christians? I am not sure that it does, this is the tragic reality of the matter.
“But if I must answer this question, then I would say what is immediately needed by this community in Iraq is a path to safely exercise their religion as well as to freely attest to being an ethnic Assyrian group and be respected for that. This should happen in an inclusive Iraq. They need to be able to protect their own communities; therefore, empowering the young men and women who are willing to serve their communities in uniform and to provide them with training which would equip them in defending their towns and villages. Career development and creation of jobs is extremely important as the repeated plea from the Iraqi Christians is to be able to become self-sustained again.
“The issue, however, is much larger and begins outside the Iraqi border. There is a geo-political uncertainty which has plagued the region for decades. The neo-Ottoman attempt to expand the Turkish border well into Iraq and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s infiltration of Iraq and its influence on Baghdad have been important matters which are of grave concern for the people on the ground as well as the diaspora community.”
However, for the Iraqi Christian community to have a stable future in Iraq, Taimoorazy said:
“Our repeated human rights violations, massacres, and suffering must be recognized and honored by the powers that be in Iraq. Our sacrifices and suffering should be given a name and it must be memorialized, to be taught in educational institutions as a part of the history of the land. The community must be viewed as indigenous people who have lived there prior to Christianity, the Assyrians. This is our ancestral land, with a long and rich history which must be honored, and not altered. To our dismay, the misrepresentation of our history is unfolding before our very eyes and very little is being done to stop it. We must be viewed as equal citizens of the land and to be given equal opportunity not only to participate but to lead governmental agencies, educational institutions, cultural entities; fundamentally, be included in every fiber of society in a respectful and honorable fashion.”