Ten years ago, in 2008, I wrote a column about the dangers facing Iraq’s Christian minority on the Nineveh Plains. I have reprinted it below this powerful article by Christina Lamb of The Sunday Times which appeared just before Christmas.
Since 2008, the Christian, Yazidi, and other minorities, have been subjected to genocide and crimes against humanity – something that some of us was going to happen and which the signatories to the Genocide Convention failed to prevent . Even now, the UK Foreign Office refuses to acknowledge these appalling crimes as a genocide. See:
The Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, now says that there will be a Review of how the Foreign Office responds to persecution of Christians. This is welcome and long overdue but it will have no credibility if it simply seeks to justify the indifference that led to the mass graves of Nineveh,
David Alton Column
December 21st 2008.
As our minds travel to the ancient town of Bethlehem, and to the marvellous wonders that occurred there, listen carefully enough and you can still hear the cadences of the Aramaic tongue, the language spoken by the young Jesus and his parents.
This is the language of the Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic Christians of Iraq; churches that have their roots in the first Christian communities at Antioch; churches, language, and a people now in great peril.
I recently took Archbishop Toma Dawod, the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop resident in London, to meet Ministers and officials in the Foreign Office.
He graphically described the suffering and plight of Iraq’s Christians and appealed for our help. He estimates that there are about 350,000 Christians in Iraq. There are also around 150,000 Iraqi Christians living in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and the Gulf.
Their lives have become a living hell.
During the months of September and October insurgents instigated a wave of attacks against the peaceful Christian population of Mosul, killing a large number of innocent people.
Many were threatened through loud speakers and as the doors and windows of their homes were smashed down they were told to vacate their homes immediately or else they would be killed. Many were murdered; homes were blown up; contents stolen. Others escaped to the comparative safety of nearby Christian villages.
In one particularly vicious attack in mid-November gunmen killed two Christian sisters after breaking into their Mosul home. They left behind a booby-trap bomb for security forces.
The sisters’ mother was hurt in the initial attack and two policemen were wounded when the bomb left by the intruders went off as they entered the house.
Aid To the Church In Need (ACN) say that more than 2,000 Christian families fled Mosul in October alone
In an interview with ACN, Fr Bashar Warda, who has overseen the charity’s emergency relief programmes for people fleeing Mosul, said the campaign of killing is having a “dramatic” effect on the faithful, who now fear another wave of attacks against them.
Fr Warda said: “It is clear that many would think of leaving Mosul again. The Government is trying to say that the city is now safe and then suddenly you have incidents like this.”
Iraqi Christian leaders say that the deaths of the sisters graphically underlines how the government is failing to deliver on its promises to deliver peace and security for vulnerable Church communities lacking militia and other means of self protection and whose only option in times of crisis is to flee.
Archbishop Dawod believes that during the autumn a total of 15,000 escaped from the city – among whom are some who are very old, sick, and women and children. Many have fled to the Nineveh Plains.
The story of Nineveh is familiar to every Christian and Jewish believer.
It will always be connected to Jonah’s stubborn disobedience and refusal to go to Nineveh when God told him to. Our reluctant traveller finally found himself unceremoniously deposited at Nineveh, spewed out from the belly of a great fish. The people of Nineveh needed Jonah – and, as it turned out, he needed them.
Nothing much has changed – and we are a generation of Jonahs once again turning our backs on Nineveh and its people.
Nineveh Plains are northeast of Mosul in the Iraqi province of Ninawa. Mosul, itself, is increasingly controlled by Sunni radicals who have been determined to cleanse the city of its Christian population. If it were not for the more welcoming authorities in the neighbouring Iraqi Province of Kurdistan – controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government – no-one would stand between these unarmed, unprotected people and those who would slay them.
The ancient city of Nineveh is on the bank of the River Tigris and the nearby villages are inhabited by a number of minority religious groups that are non-Muslim. Most of these inhabitants are Aramaic speaking Christians from the Syriac Christian tradition.
Some years ago I visited one of their ancient monasteries, Mar Gabriel, in the Turabdin region of Kurdish Turkey.
I was stunned by the beauty of their liturgies, the intensity of their faith, and the fragile threads by which their small communities were hanging on.
There are four patriarchal churches in this part of Iraq. They are the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Church of the East (both Assyrian and ancient).
These are the people now abandoned – in atrocious weather, exposed, without protection, to all the elements – on Nineveh Plains. The Archbishop says: “It seems as if the Government has been merely watching over this as a spectator.” The motive he says is to “force these Christians to emigrate.”
Archbishop Dawod believes that the first priority should be to provide protection from the killers and murderers so that they can live safely. The Iraqi Government seems incapable and indifferent. Without protection there is no way they may return to their homes.
Outside of Nineveh, elsewhere in Iraq, the terrorists and insurgents seem equally determined to target Christians. Despite the Iraqi Government appearing to be comparatively more in control in Baghdad, Christians living in the city have been forced out and have seen their homes occupied by the insurgents. They are now scattered as refugees in northern Iraq, Syria and Jordan.
Financially, many are in perilous circumstances, having lost their homes and livelihoods and the Iraqi Government provides no social security and benefits. It is very difficult for to survive.
Politically, too, Christians are also being increasingly marginalised. Last month the Iraqi Parliament offered them just three seats in the provincial elections scheduled for 31st January 2009, 10 fewer than proposed in Article 50, which was dropped from a draft electoral bill last September.
Unsurprisingly, faced with all this, Christians across the region have appealed during this Christmas season for prayer and a return to peace and stability.
It was Longfellow, who in the midst of the ravages of America’s Civil War, who penned the bitter words
‘There is not peace on earth,’ I said
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men”
But who also concluded
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep,
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.'”
May the bells once again peal for the Aramaic speaking Christians of Nineveh.