By Erin Rodewald // May 18, 2015
(This article originally appeared in The Philos Project)
For the first time since the seventh century, there are no church bells ringing across the Nineveh Plain in northern Iraq. The region has been emptied of Christians and other religious minorities, forced to flee from the ravages of Islamic State loyalists who overran cities and villages last summer.
This week, Sister Diana Momeka of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Mosul, Iraq – herself a victim of ISIS – traveled to the United States to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and bear witness to the atrocities of ISIS. She spoke softly, but her words resonated with power and truth. She has given a voice to the persecuted church.
Momeka described the impossible choices ISIS demanded of the Christians of Mosul, Qaraqosh and the surrounding towns: either convert to Islam, pay a tax (jizya) to ISIS or leave their ancestral homeland with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. By Momeka’s estimates, more than 120,000 Christians escaped to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, where they languish even now in small, prefabricated containers and makeshift shelters. “This uprooting – this theft of everything that the Christians owned – displaced them body and soul, stripping away their humanity and dignity,” she said.
And they were the lucky ones. In its recently released 2015 Annual Report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom related that many minority groups have paid the ultimate price. Last August alone, ISIS massacred as many as 500 Yazidis, Assyrian Christians, Shi’a and other minorities during the attack on the town of Sinjar. Thousands of innocent Yazidi women and girls were kidnapped, raped, sold as sex slaves or killed.
“Not only have we been robbed of our homes, property and land, but our heritage is being destroyed as well,” Momeka added. Indeed, ISIS continues to systematically demolish churches, cultural artifacts and sacred places throughout the Nineveh Plains. In July, the shrine of Nebi Yunis, revered as the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, was reduced to rubble. More recently, ISIS defaced ancient Neo-Assyrian sculptures depicting human-headed winged bulls or lions that date between the ninth and seventh century BC. According to Dr. Katharyn Hanson, a fellow with the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania Museum who also testified at the hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, defacing these sacred relics, called lamassu, is “intended to terrorize the present-day Christian community while simultaneously destroying an ancient artifact.”
ISIS has left a trail of mass death and destruction in its intentional campaign against religious minorities, but as Hanson noted, its aim is even more sinister. ISIS plans the complete “erasure of the outward manifestations of the minority religious culture, threatening the continuity of their religious practices.”
Another voice at the hearing was that of Hind Kabawat, director of Interfaith Peacebuilding at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. Kabawat is a Syrian Christian from Damascus whose husband still lives in the old city. According to Kabawat, ISIS “believes it cannot control the future until it controls the past. By targeting Assyrian archaeology, ISIS goes beyond ethnic and religious cleansing to further wipe out any historical trace of the people it has displaced.”
What remains – in Iraq and Syria – is a ghost of a people. The trauma and psychological toll has been great. Kabawat advocates for the creation of safe havens for those escaping ISIS, as well as robust social services. “If we wait until the war is over to begin addressing such widespread and systematic trauma, we will have lost an entire generation … now growing up amidst horror and war,” she said.
The final panelist, Jacqueline Isaac, vice president of Roads of Success, a Los Angeles-based non-profit humanitarian relief and human rights organization, echoed the call for increased and tangible humanitarian assistance. She recently brought a team of U.S. trauma experts to Iraq to aid the victims. “I witnessed the transformational growth the girls experienced just after a few hours of counseling and being reminded of their value and purpose, a stark difference after ISIS had sold them as merchandise.”
Isaac concluded her remarks by underscoring why the U.S. must do more in the fight against ISIS: “First, it is in America’s national security interest to see ISIS defeated, both as an idea and as a military movement,” she said. “Second, the preservation of human life and property – especially of allies like the people of Iraqi-Kurdistan, Jordanians and Iraqi citizens – is commensurate with our highest ideals.”
Which begs an interesting comparison. In Iraq and Syria, Christians are literally dying for their faith. Yet here at home, Americans seem to be abandoning theirs with little thought or concern. According to the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study released by Pew Research Center last week, Christians are declining, both as a share of the U.S. population and in total number. That study also showed that nearly a quarter of the adults who were raised Christian no longer identify with Christianity. It would seem that the church bells have gone silent not just in Nineveh, but also increasingly in the U.S.
Yet in the midst of the silence in Iraq and Syria, it’s as if the very stones are crying out. These persecuted Christians have a steadfast faith. “Our faith is increasing more and more. The hand of God is still with us,” Momeka proclaimed. “In the midst of this suffering, we see a God who is holding us and providing the gift of the Holy Spirit – who is giving us strength.” How is it that a people all but extinguished can have such a strong faith and Americans, who have more freedom, security and opportunity than any other nation in the history of the world, can be so cavalier about theirs?
With moral clarity, Momeka continues to stare down the evil tormenting her people. Many have asked her, “Why don’t the Christians just leave Iraq and move to another county and be done with it?” Beside the obvious answer – that the Christians have done nothing to deserve displacement – Momeka offers this sage analysis: “Christians have – for centuries – been the bridge that connects Eastern and Western cultures. Destroying this bridge will leave an isolated, inculturated conflict zone emptied of cultural and religious diversity. Through our presence as Christians, we’re called to be a force for good, for peace, for connection between cultures.”
These are the “highest ideals” to which American Christians are also called. Momeka and her partners at the hearing asked for our help to restore, repair and rebuild the Christian community in Iraq. Read more about their solutions and recommendations here, then contact your elected officials. While restoration may be a long-term prospect, there are immediate needs to be met as well. Lend your voice and financial support; consider donating to one of the many humanitarian aid organizations actively serving the persecuted church, such as Samaritan’s Purse, Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors or International Christian Concern.