That red mark in the photo. That’s how it started. No, that’s not a lazy attempt at a smiley face found in some urban American alleyway. It’s the Arabic letter nun, spraypainted on an Iraqi house, as a visible sign to all around that the inhabitants are Nazareni, i.e. followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
As the group known as ISIS (or ISIL) took control of northern Iraq, they set out to purge all Christians and other religious minorities (including dissenting Muslim groups) from the country. Those targeted were given the choice to convert, pay a faith tax (which many could not because of economic restraints), or die. Many have fled, but others have been killed. In July alone, an estimated 18,000 were killed.
The religious group of Yezidis were not even given the option to pay a tax because they do not meet the “People of the Book” criteria, which would have offered some limited protections under sharia law. As a result, women and girls from among them have been kidnapped and sold into slavery by ISIS soldiers and many more have been killed.
By the time you read this article, I’m not sure if there will be any Christians left. By the beginning of August, already Mosul has become devoid of Christians. Over 200,000 have been displaced since ISIS invaded.
It’s a shocking tragedy and an ongoing genocide. It is also heartbreaking to consider that these are Assyrian Christians and that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Assyrian Genocide under the Ottoman Empire, when some 400,000 Assyrian Christians were killed.
We haven’t heard as much about this situation in the American press as I would have liked. For most of June and July, the majority of information seemed to come from local reports within Iraq. I particularly followed the work of Canon Andrew White, an Anglican vicar in Baghdad. He has boldly stayed in the regions affected so that he can help those who are being terrorized. In his reports, he begs us to stand in soldarity with them.
Sure, this is a tragedy, but it’s been a summer of tragedies. So, why am I so concerned about this particular issue? Because they’re my family. We were all baptized in the name of the same God into the same Body of Christ. Those being persecuted are my sisters and brothers.
I also am reminded of how seriously St. Paul takes that notion that the Church is the “Body of Christ.” He writes to the faithful in Corinth that what happens to one member of the Body of Christ affects all the other members as well.
How can we help right now?
First and foremost, pray. I know it doesn’t seem like a whole lot, but I believe prayer can make a difference in the world. Our Presiding Bishop called Episcopal churches to observe a day of prayer for these victims on Sunday, August 17, and at my church we participated in that call to prayer. I hope people will continue to pray individually and corporately for peace for our sisters and brothers. I am working with colleagues on planning an ecumenical prayer service for these victims in October.
Help raise awareness. It doesn’t necessarily just happen. To add insult to injury after the 1914/1915 situation, historians and leaders didn’t formally recognize the genocide until about 2007. We can’t let any act of ethnic or religious cleansing be swept under the rug. Speak with our leaders at the state and national level and demand that they support efforts to stop this persecution and to provide aid to the survivors.
Contribute to relief agencies. The Diocese recommends contributing to the Baghdad church’s Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (http://frrme.org/), but there are also respected Assyrian Church relief organizations, like the Assyrian Church of the East Relief Organization (http://theacero.org/). Or, you can make a donation to St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Westborough (marking “Iraqi relief work” in the memo), and we’ll pass it on to trusted relief agencies.
We can make a difference. Never underestimate the healing power of Christ.