Iraq, that great scar on modern Western consciences, is falling into the hands of a group of Islamist thugs who are so extreme that al-Qaeda got squeamish about them and booted them out. ISIS – which stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – consists of battle-hardened jihadists, many of whom have been tested in the war of attrition still ongoing against Bashar Assad in Syria. They are the very face of evil and soon they will control a wholly new state – carved from the wreckage of brutal insurgency in Syria and Iraq, dominated by hardline Sunni fundamentalism and inculcated with the kind of Islamist chauvinism that strikes terror into the hearts of anyone who dares to believe differently.
This is the final scene in the grotesque, theatrical death of Iraqi Christianity. A people who once numbered more than a million, who just a decade ago enjoyed the use of more than 300 blossoming churches, now faces extinction. They have already been persecuted to less than half their original number. Their churches have been bombed, their lives have been taken, their liberties infringed. To believe that Jesus is your saviour is already a life-threatening condition in Iraq. But ISIS represent a departure from even the everyday persecution of Iraqi Christians. ISIS promise a holocaust for Christians trapped under their medieval rule.
The Catholic Chaldean cathedral in Mosul is now surrounded. Christians in ISIS-occupied Iraq need only to look to their cousins in Syria to understand the fate that awaits them. Christian Syrians under the jackboot of ISIS have been compelled to pay a “gold tax”, remove all visible symbols of Christianity, cease public prayer and are barred from renovating religious buildings. Dissenters have, in a grim and heartbreaking irony, been crucified. Literally.
We cannot allow Iraq’s Christians to suffer the same fate. As they flee before ISIS’ hordes they know they have run out of places to go. Many who fled the ordinary, anti-Christian thuggery of pre-ISIS Iraq went to Syria. Obviously that is not an option now. The only answer, if we are to prevent a holocaust of our Christian brothers and sisters, is to open our doors and offer sanctuary.
Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world, and we owe an obligation to Iraqi Christians to ensure that persecution does not become genocide. These people have done nothing wrong. And their suffering now is, at least partly, our fault and our responsibility. Why? Because of two acts of cowardice that have come back to haunt us. Our withdrawal from Iraq, having failed to equip the country we had occupied with either basic security or the liberal democracy we promised, has left religious minorities living in fear and a state unable and unwilling to protect them. Our refusal to come to the aide of mainstream opposition groups in the struggle against Assad emboldened jihadists and left liberal groups to wither and die in the face of international, Islamist networks moving in to fill the vacuum. We have failed in Iraq and failed in Syria and now our failure is making sacrificial lambs of those nations’ beleaguered Christians. We are not going to rush back, troops and tanks at the ready, to clean up our mistake. So the least we can do is try to mitigate the impact.
We must let Iraq’s Christians come here and live with us. We must offer them some hope in the face of so much darkness. Their suffering is ours to bear and we cannot abandon them to it yet again.