He was warned not to go out onto the street, even for the weekly shop, but his brother laughed and enjoined him to stop fretting like an old woman. Confidently, they walked out of their house and proceeded down the block, when suddenly they were set upon by masked men. They kicked them into a kneeling position and held their heads down in the gutter. “Convert to Islam, or die,” they told his brother. The brother did not make a sound. Instead, he shook his head. The next moment was punctuated by an ear-splitting sound and when he opened his eyes, his brother’s brains were splattered all over the road. “Convert to Islam or die,” came the words again. “No,” he replied. A moment later, excruciating pain and then, void.
This is not Asia Minor 1922. It is Mosul 2012 and I met the surviving brother, an Assyrian Christian, at a funeral in Melbourne last year. He sat alone, nursing the stump of his arm. It had to be amputated after the Islamic terrorists who killed his brother shot and mangled it severely, leaving him to bleed to death on the street. These Islamic terrorists were, from the manner in which they spoke Arabic, foreigners. The victim, though ethnically not an Arab but fully conversant in that language, was, in appearance, indistinguishable from all other citizens of Mosul. The only logical explanation of his targeting was that his neighbours reported to the Islamists the fact that he was a Christian. Realising this, he fled.
When ISIS terrorists entered Mosul from Syria, a month ago, they removed all the crosses from the churches. Then they marked the homes of the Christians with the Arabic letter ‘N’, which stands for Nazarene, the term applied to Christians in the Quran. They were able to identify the religious identity of the owners of those homes by means of information provided to them by their non-Christian neighbours, people with whom they had lived side by side for decades. They gave the Christians a deadline of a few hours to either convert to Islam, leave, or pay the jizya, a poll tax directed against non-Muslims in Islamic practice (we paid it to the Ottomans before the Greek Revolution of 1821). The Christians of Raqqa in Syria were also required to pay the jizya, in gold, and so the only alternative, other than the ‘sword’, for the impoverished Christians was to flee. As these original inhabitants of Mesopotamia were told by ISIS: “You are foreigners in this land. Flee to the west and let them take you in their homes.” Yet even in fleeing, the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Mosul were not permitted to take anything with them, either their wallets, phones or even their wedding rings. In many cases, urged on by clergy from Gulf countries, ISIS fighters turned off the water supply in Christian areas in order to create as much hardship as possible. As a result, tens of thousands of Christians have fled on foot to Kurdish controlled territory, completely destitute and without any hope of providing for themselves or their families. They are, literally, living on the streets.
One Christian lady fleeing Mosul with her two sons was stopped at an ISIS checkpoint where she was divested of all her possessions. She was then stopped at a second checkpoint where she was asked to hand over her belongings. When she protested that she had already lost everything, she was told: “That’s not true. You have two sons. Choose which one you will give us.” As she desperately pleaded for mercy, one of her sons was taken away from her.
Western media plays down the deliberate targeting of Aramaic-speaking Assyrian Christians in Iraq. They do so even though it is manifestly obvious that while before the war that toppled Saddam Hussein, there were 1.3 million Christians living in Iraq, now a decade later, there are only 50,000. While Western media attempt to show that the sectarian conflict in Iraq is a result of a struggle for power, they gloss over the fact that in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, Christians, who are the native inhabitants of the region, have been subjected to a regime of terror, ethnic cleansing and genocide, more protracted and just as terrible as that meted out to the Christians of Anatolia by the Ottomans, almost a hundred years previously.
There are many reasons for this. While Muslim Shiites are also being targeted by the Sunni ISIS troops and recently the muslim tomb of the prophet Jonah was destroyed by them, they have not been asked to leave and their persecution is a recent phenomenon with few precedents. With regard to the native Christians, on the other hand, persecution and ill-treatment has been deeply ingrained within the culture of Iraq for a millennium and their very existence is considered undesirable. ISIS is now engaged in the demolition of Mosul’s churches and millennia-old monasteries, attesting to very ancient Christian traditions, to ensure that there is nothing left for the Christians ever to come back to.
Western countries glide over this religious element because they are secular. Religion in the west, as a unifying force and cultural identifier, is no longer as relevant as it once was. Indeed, since in secular countries popular consciousness has been cultivated to consider religion as being evil and the source of all conflict in the world, what does it matter if a bunch of Middle Easterners are being killed or terrorised for having the temerity to hold uncritically onto antiquated and discredited beliefs by another fanaticised religious group? There is an element of cultural imperialism and orientalism here. While religious fervour is acceptable to Muslims, it should not be acceptable to more ‘civilised’ Christians. Secondly, there is the fear that in highlighting the plight of the Christians of Iraq, there is a corollary highlighting of failure of Western policy in the region, one that is eternally embarrassing to those who speedily proclaimed some years ago: “Mission Accomplished.” Thirdly, there is the well-grounded fear that in placing emphasis upon the specific targeting of Christians, this will cause social upheaval in secularised, pluralistic countries, as concerned and incensed Christians target innocent Muslim fellow citizens by way of reprisal.
Yet what is not understood is that the persecution of the Christians in Iraq is an attack against the West. The Assyrian Christians have, since the foundation of their church, been isolated and persecuted for their beliefs first by the Persians, then the Arabs, the Ottomans and now ISIS. They have had limited contact with the West and culturally, are a Middle Eastern people. To ISIS, and those who subscribe to the traditional view that Christians in the Middle East are unbelievers and thus can be treated unequally, however, their religion marks them out as Westerners and an attack on them, is in fact, an attack on the West itself. Assyrian Christians know this and they wring their hands in anguish wondering why their western co-religionists do not strive to save them from this new Kristallnacht. The answer, that the West is no longer Christian but secular and that thus, they are alone, is too brutal to comprehend.
The further question, which is what ISIS and its future successors will do when they realise that the killing and ethnic cleansing of Middle Eastern Christians and the looting of their properties does not hurt the West and instead makes them indifferent, also deserves to be posed. A final question, which is why there is not a resounding condemnation by supposedly democratic progressive Middle Eastern countries, who are recipients of Western aid, against the persecution of the Christians of the region, also must be addressed.
Seventy years after the Holocaust and the creation of the United Nations, as a supposedly highly developed, technologically gifted, global society, we are unable to stop the depravities that so horrified nation states that they resolved to re-organise themselves into structures of mutual co-operation, so that these never be repeated again. Seventy years on, people are still being killed as a result of their ethnic or religious identity and we seem unable or unwilling to do anything about this. In the era of the triumph of secularism, Western democracies have either ignored or presided over the radicalisation of sections of the planet along religious lines, with disastrous results for both global security and people’s lives. It is time that they acted effectively, before further lives and indigenous cultural traditions are lost forever. In this, the Greeks can play a unique role, as a bridge between east and west. After all, we have been through all this before.
*Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance journalist.