Persecuted Christians of the Middle East
In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) occupied the Iraqi city of Mosul, which was the home to around 3,000 Christians. Soon, these Christians discovered that the Arabic letter “Nun” (ن) had been sprayed on their doors to mark them as “Nasara” – the Qur’anic term for Christians. A few days later, they also learnt the implications. ISIL had given them an ultimatum, to follow one of the four options: They either had to convert to Islam, pay a very heavy jizya (tax), flee or “die by the sword.” They chose the third option, and left the city over night, to have their properties confiscated, and sadly leave Mosul Christian-free.
I heard the details of this story the other week in Rome, at an international conference titled “Under the Caesar’s Sword: Christian Response to Persecution.” Some of the participants were wearing a pin on their jackets presenting the Arabic word “Nun” (ن), which apparently became the symbol of a new wear-it-with-pride campaign. The conference covered the persecution of Christians all across the world, which is certainly not a problem exclusive to the Middle East. Christians of various denominations are persecuted quite severely, sometimes alongside Muslims as victims – by communists in North Korea, radical Buddhists in Myanmar, or militant Hindu nationalists in India.
In the Middle East, however, Christians do get persecuted at the hands of Muslims. The most burning threat is ISIL, and other Salafi-jihadists, who dictate to Christians those four options that stem from their strict version of the shariah: Convert, pay tax, flee or die. Meanwhile, even in “moderate” Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, along with Iran, Sudan and Afghanistan, there is a peculiar attack on religious freedom in the form of banning “apostasy” from Islam. As a result, converts to Christianity can be imprisoned and executed, or barely survive execution thanks to international pressure – as in the cases of Yusuf Nadarkhani in Iran, Meriam Ibrahim in Sudan, or Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan. (While there is no ban on apostasy in the Qur’an, the classical schools of shariah consider it a capital crime.)
While one thing that threatens Middle Eastern Christians is such authoritarian aspects of Islamic law, another is the lawlessness created by the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. This was highlighted by the two Christian leaders from these countries that spoke at the Rome Conference: His Beatitude Louis Raphael Sako, patriarch of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq, and His Beatitude Mor Ignatius Youssef III Younan, patriarch of the Syriac Catholic Church. Both holy men, in their keynote addresses, emphasized that Iraq was much safer for Christians before 2003 (the fall of Saddam Hussein) and Syria was much safer for Christians before 2011 (before the coming of the “Arab Spring”).
These remarks by the Syrian patriarch made me recall an age-old saying in the Middle East: “A day of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny.” Of course it is terrible for a region that these are the only two options at hand – anarchy or tyranny. Yet if these are the only ones readily available, it is easy to see anyone opting for the latter.
In such a growingly dangerous world, what will be the Christian response? The faith leaders who spoke at the Rome Conference noted that it is up to the individuals and the families to make their own choice. Some, especially the young, flee, preferably to the West, to build better lives. Others stay, committed to preserving Christianity in the very lands it first flourished in two millennia ago.
But as they emotionally recall, as I saw in Rome, it was their very savior who did not escape from being tormented for his faith.