The militant group ISIS, which invaded Iraq from Syria and began seizing control of Iraqi cities several months ago, has systematically persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, forcing many to flee. The terrorist organization imposed Sharia law this past June and recently prevented Christian services from being held in Mosul for the first time 1600 years. Christians were given the option of converting to Islam, paying a jizya tax, or fleeing. Last week, the city’s remaining Christian families fled – and were reportedly robbed at ISIS checkpoints as they left.
These actions have prompted many Christians around the world to adopt the Arabic character of “nun” on social media in a show of solidarity with the persecuted. This symbol had been painted and posted on the homes of Christian families in Iraq, marking them as targets for their beliefs.
It is heartening to read the posts and essays by Christian writers who express concern for the welfare of their brothers and sisters suffering in Iraq. Their work has been a moving testament to the pain fellow Christians are facing and an important reminder that this suffering must not be forgotten.
But there has been a disturbing undercurrent in some of these tributes to Mosul’s Christians: an unspoken indifference to the plight of non-Christian Iraqis who are suffering with their Christian countrymen. Given that most Christian denominations are defined by their concern for all people regardless of their faith, I fear this is creating a discrete, insular provincialism that cannot be reconciled with Christianity and does no favors to broader Christian outreach.
As an example, here is Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry at Patheos:
The persecution of Christians happens under a great shroud of silence. Maybe, as John Allen has argued, persecuted Christians are too Christian for the Left to care, and too third-worldy for the Right to care (but, you know, there’s a War on Christmas on). And the worst thing for our governments would be to be seen in non-Christian lands as having any sort of special solidarity with Christians (yes, wouldn’t that be terrible), so better to err on the side of indifference. Right?
This blood is particularly on the hands of the American government, which has a special duty to help them and, I am sure, will do nothing of the sort.
Much credit should go to Gobry and his fellow bloggers for lifting this shroud of silence surrounding Christian persecution through their work – I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much about this crisis without their efforts. But Gobry’s proposal for a governmental declaration of solidarity with Iraq’s Christians makes little sense. What reason would the U.S. have for expressing any particular affinity for Christians over Muslims in Iraq, especially when ISIS extremism is affecting Sunni and Shi’a Muslims in different but equally disturbing ways?
For that matter, if the U.S. were to signal solidarity with a persecuted minority, why would it limit its symbolic gesture to only Christians? Human Rights Watch reports that a variety of religious and ethnic minority groups, including Turkmen, Shabaks, and Yazidis, have also been persecuted for their beliefs and subjected to decrees similar to the one given to Mosul’s Christians. A significant number of non-Christian believers are being affected by these decrees. Turkmen, for example, constitute the third-largest ethnic group in Iraq, with 500,000 living in the Mosul area and 30,000 in the city proper. Despite its large Christian population, the U.S. government obviously has no explicit Christian affiliation, and to express “special solidarity” with Christians in Mosul, which Gobry sarcastically suggests would be no big deal, is actually a serious affront to the other religious groups suffering similar harm in Iraq.
Michael Brendan Dougherty at The Week falls into a similar trap as Gobry, suggesting that Christians are the primary group that deserves American attention:
The U.S. owes Christians and other persecuted Iraqi minorities assistance… Mosul was a home for Christians for as long as Christianity existed. Not anymore. Now, the U.S. cannot restore these people to their homes, or reverse the desecration of Christian shrines. But our diplomatic, financial, and moral energies should be used to protect them from any further harm.
To his credit, Dougherty references other “religious minorities” throughout the essay, but he never actually names any of them. The piece’s title reinforces a decidedly narrow view of whom American aid should assist: “Why America is duty bound to help Iraqi Christians.”
Dougherty calls for the U.S. to withhold financial aid to Iraq until its government does more to protect only afflicted religious minorities. To argue this point is to ignore the besieged members of Iraq’s religious majority. While Islam constitutes 97% of the country’s religious population, Sunni Muslims account for around 35% of the total religious population and Shi’a Muslims account for around 60%. There have been atrocities committed against both denominations and the Iraqi government is not blameless. To suggest aid should be preconditioned solely on the welfare of minorities – and to ignore the hardship inflicted on innocent Sunni and Shi’a Muslims – seems tone-deaf at best, since civilians of all religious communities have been unjustly affected. The Christian commitment to human rights is not limited to fellow Christians, but premised upon the belief that they belong to all people, regardless of their background.
Rorate-Caeli similarly frames the atrocities in Iraq solely through their impact on Christians in the region (and seemingly in a way to cover their past opposition to supporting those who have actually been fighting ISIS):
For two thousand years, our dearest brethren saw it all from Mosul… For years, we have been warning that support for terrorists in neighboring Syria would surely end badly. But even we could not imagine that it would end so badly so fast and over such a vast area. And yet, the insane Empire-builders are still handing billions and billions, and hundreds of millions of dollars to “moderate” terrorists! Where’s the outrage? Have you contacted your congressman, senator, president, MP, prime-minister expressing your outrage, begging this madness to stop?…
After two thousand years, it is finished. It’s over. Who will pay for the lasting damage lying Western politicians created by starting a process that would lead to what not even the first Islamic rulers, thirteen centuries ago, ever did, the obliteration of Christian life and populations?…
In Mosul, genocide has been accomplished. Where’s the outrage?
There is something vaguely, quietly cruel in this call to contact government officials as a response, first and foremost, to Christian persecution in Iraq. One million Iraqis have fled the country in 2014. 500,000 people in total have left Mosul. Did the authors of this post think it unimportant to emphasize how a general diaspora of displaced Iraqis is equally unacceptable? Are we to believe that Christian persecution is more important and worthy of collective action than the pain felt by those of other religions?
This is not to minimize the particularly brutal treatment of Christians by ISIS, but to emphasize that all forms of persecution to every religious group in Iraq are worthy of condemnation. Christians should not simply stand in solidarity with their tribe, but with all believers of good will who are unjustly harmed or prevented from worshipping by ISIS’ extremism. Action should not be a consequence of singular Christian oppression; voices should be raised because innocent people are prevented from exercising religious liberty and fully practicing their beliefs. Voices should be raised to defend ethnic minorities as well and to support the human rights and dignity of all who must live under ISIS’ vicious repression.
I understand that, as Christians, Gobry and Dougherty feel a particular connection with those who share their conception of the world, and I do not mean to suggest that any omission of other religious groups is tantamount to a dismissal of their well-being. But to focus on Christians to the exclusion or marginalization of other minorities is to reject the universalism that is implicit in Christian teaching (catholic means universal, after all). We must not risk even the slightest chance of conveying this attitude in any dialogue about religious persecution in Mosul. Framing the unjust conditions that Christians face within the broader context of Iraqi upheaval and violence is critically important as a testament to the hardship endured by all.
Muslims, Turkmen, and Iraq’s other religious and ethnic minorities are as much our brothers and sisters as Christians in Iraq. Christians around the world should not forget them as they pray and work for peace.
Chris Fegan is a graduate of Boston College and currently works in New Jersey. He and his fellow blogger Matt Mazewski write about politics, religion, and culture at Reasonably Moderate, where a version of this article first appeared.