Thursday, March 17, 2016

Never Again, and Again, and Again... (part two of two)

“Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.” –David Cameron

In my last post, I talked about the report from the Knights of Columbus and In Defense of Christians demonstrating the genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in ISIS territory. This post summarizes some of the report’s findings on ISIS’ intent and actions of genocide. 

The intent of ISIS is clear. ISIS jargon is rife with references to war against Christianity. It sees itself as a continuation of the medieval Crusades. The city of Dabiq (ISIS’ magazine shares this name) is said to be the location of the Armageddon, the final battle of the caliphate and Rome. Rome is shorthand for all western influence, but they mean it literally too. They call Pope Francis the “crusader pope,” and they want to physically hold the city.

An article in Dabiq states (from the report):
“We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women…” and “nothing changes for the Islamic State, as it will continue to pronounce takfir [abandonment of Islam] upon the Jews, the Christians, the pagans, and the apostates …And it will continue to wage war against the Christians until the truce decreed sometime before the Malhamah. Thereafter, the slave markets will commence in Rome by Allah’s power and might.”(9)

An icon of the 21 Coptic martyrs,
killed for their faith in 2015
The group’s actions have been consistent with its intent. In Islam, Christians and Jews are considered “people of the book.” Sharing the Abrahamic God means people of the book hold a few more privileges in Islamic countries than pagans (in theory). One such privilege is the jizya; instead of fighting for an Islamic country, military-age Christian men could pay an extra tax to fund their defense. Under ISIS, the jizya was used to find the Christians. In Ninevah, ISIS collected money, then went back to kill, kidnap, and rape Christians, as well as destroy their buildings. In Raqqa, Christians were given the offer to pay jizya only after the churches were closed, bibles burned, and priests kidnapped. Generally, ISIS doesn’t even offer jizya to Christians, claiming that trinitarianism is polytheism, making Christians pagans, not people of the book. 

Christians mainly face two fates: murder or enslavement. Mass graves have been discovered. Reports are that 500 people died when ISIS took over Mosul in June 2014. There were about 30,000 Christians living in the city; they were told to convert, pay a tax (usually whatever was raided), leave, or die. The Christian community of Mosul had existed for 1,900 years; it is no more. This was repeated in several cities.

Many have been able to flee; their communities are destroyed, scattering amongst refugee camps and various countries, unable to return. The report states, “In 2003, the Christian population in Iraq was estimated at 1.4 million. Currently the Iraqi Christian population is estimated at 275,000.” (223) In Syria, the 2011 Christian population was estimated at 1.25 million. Today, the estimate is 500,000. Of the total Syrian population of 20 million, over 6.5 million are displaced. 

Women are taken as rewards to the ISIS fighters. A list shows the prices by for “Christian or Yazidi” women on sale in the slave markets. (203) Children are taken as slaves (including sex slaves) or to be raised as the next generation of ISIS fighters. 

How is something that sounds like it belongs on Game of Thrones happening in the current world? It is so foreign, so outlandish, so unreal, that it is difficult for me to actually accept. I think many Westerners are like me, numb by either shock or denial. This doesn’t happen again. It can’t happen again, because we would stop it, right?

Back in 2013, the Assad regime in Syria was battling a revolution. This conflict created the power vacuum that ISIS so willingly filled. There were the signs that Syria was at a tipping point. PM David Cameron said in May 2013, “Syria’s history is being written in the blood of her people, and it is happening on our watch.” A few months later, Assad used sarin gas on civilians. The conflict was getting worse. Secretary of State Kerry said in August 2013, “As previous storms in history have gathered, when unspeakable crimes were within our power to stop them, we have been warned against the temptations of looking the other way. History is full of leaders who have warned against inaction, indifference, and especially against silence when it mattered most.”

In the last minute, the US didn’t intervene, instead meeting with Russia, negotiating for the removal of chemical weapons in Syria in exchange to not invade. We didn’t want yet another war. We were tired of policing of the world. We wanted diplomatic talks to work and local revolutionaries to prevail. And although I don’t know what government intelligence might have known at the time, I doubt they foresaw ISIS growing so strong. I think history will note the things we should have done in 2013/2014 (or 2008, 2003, 1990, etc. depending on how far back you want to look). Hindsight, they say, is 20/20, and while we’re always warning against another Hitler, we don’t really think it will happen again. We’ll see it; we’ll stop it. Humanity will recognize where the line is this time. And then we’re surprised and stricken numb by the images and reports of refugees and causalities. 

Iraq's oldest Christian monastery, St. Elijah, before (2011) and after (2014) its destruction by ISIS.
The monastery had stood in Mosul for over 1,400 years.
There are Christian communities, now scattered across Turkey and Jordan and Europe, who will never return. Some of the oldest Christian art and churches are simply gone. My community is injured. These are my people, my churches, my history. Christianity in the Middle East is further weakened, and I ache for it. I think the violence there will intensify before anything is resolved. More civilians will lose their homes, their families, their own lives. I don’t know what policy is really the best course. I don’t know how we could have stopped it, and I don’t know how to stop it now. So I’m left repeating the refrain we lie to ourselves: Not again, never again.

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