The Importance of Caring About Iraqi Christians, But Rejecting Sectarianism

The international community and the United States have responded to the crisis in Iraq, and perhaps thousands of people are escaping imminent death thanks to US airstrikes, but only time will tell if this measured response is sufficient. Thousands are still extremely vulnerable, particularly those Yazidis remaining on Mount Sinjar:

There is no other way to put this: the thousands of people left on this mountainside are covered in goat droppings and have no water to drink, let alone to wash it off.

The children all have diarrhoea. Those who have wounds – common, everyday wounds, of feet injured by broken glass, or less common ones such as old shrapnel injuries – see their infections grow without respite. There was no medical care until the arrival of the Iraqi army medical team who allowed The Telegraph to accompany them, and the result is a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportions.

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As Chris Fegan noted a couple of weeks ago, it is encouraging to see Christians concerned about their fellow Christians facing persecution halfway across the globe, but there is at the same time a disturbing empathy gap regarding non-Christians facing a similar plight. This is seen among those who highlight only Christian persecution in Iraq, despite the genocidal threat to Yazidis and grave suffering of others. It is also seen in the indifference some Christians have when it comes to the victims of Bashar al-Assad’s campaign of widespread torture and mass murder in Syria, where over 175,000 people have been killed and over 9 million have been displaced from their homes. From a Catholic point of view, there is something intellectually incoherent and morally disturbing about those who care about the displacement of 200,000 Iraqi Christians, but not 9 million Syrians, simply because a majority of those fleeing are Sunni Muslims.

At the mass I attended yesterday, there was a petition for the Christians of Iraq and Syria. If this was framed within the context of praying for all of the persecuted people in these countries or for peace and justice for Syrians and Iraqis, a special plea for our co-religionists might make some sense. Countless Christians are facing dire conditions and are showing extraordinary courage and faith. But to exclude the majority of those killed and displaced in these countries from our prayers is simply unacceptable. A sectarian prayer cannot be reconciled with the catholic nature of Catholic beliefs. It cannot be reconciled with the Church’s teaching that we are all members of one human family, each made in the image of God with worth and dignity that is innate (not based on one’s religious affiliation). I am sure that this was the result of thoughtlessness rather than a malevolent plan to exclude Yazidis, Muslims, and others from our prayers. But overt Christian sectarianism is on display from both the left and right among Catholic writers online (and from some Catholic prelates, as well). All Catholics should be conscious of avoiding this very uncatholic way of thinking and acting—in prayer, the sharing of information, and the policy responses they favor. When you see a child slaughtered by the Islamic State or one of Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs, your first response should not be check to see if the child is a Christian.
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Our responsibility is to promote the global common good and the dignity of all. This includes shining a spotlight on the suffering of Iraqi Christians, but cannot be limited to that alone. In the video below, a persecuted Christian does not forget non-Christians as he talks about those suffering from the tyranny and terrorism of the Islamic State. Those in the West should follow his lead.