Jews and Christians have lived in Iraq for thousands of years. Today, most of them have left. In the West, people who identify as Christians tend to form a majority of the population, but in the Middle East, they are embattled minorities, struggling for equal rights.
With the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, all eyes are once again on Iraq, the Middle Eastern country which once housed the great empires of Babylon and—if the Bible is to be believed—likely the Garden of Eden itself. It has also served as a homeland for Christians for two thousand years, a history largely unknown to those of us in the West.
Tina Ramirez, founder and executive director of the religious freedom nonprofit Hardwired, spoke with PJ Media about the difficult situation faced by Jews and Christians in Iraq. Ramirez served as a policy researcher at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and has directed international programs at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
She has helped secure the release of imprisoned victims; testified before the U.S. Congress, the United Nations, and the African Union; and trained advocates and religious leaders in Iraq, Sudan, and Turkey in their religious freedom rights.
Ramirez painted a harrowing picture of religious struggles in Iraq. Following the U.S. withdrawal of armed forces in 2011, the country has splintered into three large sections—a Shi’ite dominated south led by the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, a northwest largely dominated by the Islamic State, and a northeast run by the ethnic Kurds. The former dictator, Saddam Hussein, oppressed the Shi’ites and the Kurds, but both groups seized power after the fall of Saddam’s party, and a Sunni reaction helped give rise to the Islamic State.
Most Jews and Christians Have Left Iraq
“Most of Iraq’s Jews had left Iraq before the current crisis and were not living in the areas attacked by ISIS,” Ramirez explained. After many waves of Jewish emigration, it was believed that only five Jews remained in Baghdad, but “recent information reveals that there are still 430 families remaining in the Kurdish areas.” The Kurds share more of America’s values than ISIS or the Iraqi state, and their acceptance of Jewish families is a heartening sign.
Christians, meanwhile, were “specifically targeted by ISIS in Mosul and the surrounding villages…in June-August of 2014, causing the mass displacement of half a million people,” Ramirez added. Of the estimated 1.2 million Christians living in Iraq in 2003, fewer than 150,000 remain.
While Jews and Christians have historically not fared well in Iraq, ISIS has specifically cracked down on Christians, Ramirez explained. Under previous Muslim empires, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religion so long as they demonstrated their “submission” and paid a special tax—the jizya. ISIS, however, “is not really giving anyone the option to pay the tax.”
Instead, “Christians from Mosul have reported that the tax was unbearable and they all refused and left when the caliphate gave them an ultimatum to leave, convert, or be killed.” Some Christians have obtained public documents stating their conversion to Islam, signed by ISIS leaders, which allow them to leave the country freely, but many have been killed in public executions, often broadcast worldwide.
Father Michael Bazzi, a Chaldean Christian priest who left his native Iraq more than four decades ago, said that there is no future for Christians in Iraq, who are caught between Sunni and Shia parties of Islam.
Those Christians and Jews who have stayed—and their ancestors before them—have few recognized rights and are often persecuted even through government policy. Ramirez reported that “there are restrictions which prevent them from identifying their religion on identity cards, which inhibits many personal status functions,” and that “social hostility and discrimination are rampant.”
“Entrenched discrimination in government and employment and representation continues,” she added. While the Kurdish government “has taken some steps to protect persecuted minorities and has been a welcomed refuge to the thousands fleeing ISIS,” it does not provide full equal rights to Jews and Christians.
Ramirez cautioned that “any aid to the Kurdish or Iraqi central government should be conditioned on enforcement of laws guaranteeing the equal treatment of minority communities, and steps to ensure their viability in the country.”
Some Christians are taking up arms against ISIS. Ramirez mentioned “Assyrian Christians who have lived through the Armenian/Assyrian genocide…and believe in self-defense.” Nevertheless, these Christians are often “under-equipped and outnumbered.” Under Saddam Hussein, these communities had separate Assyrian protection units but after Saddam’s fall they laid down their arms due to promises of greater protection and integration into national and local armed units—promises that went unfulfilled.
Ramirez also noted that some Christians and other minority communities have requested more autonomy from the Iraqi central government. These groups asked the government “to recognize an autonomous region for them to govern which would offer the added protection and credibility they desire to feel safe maintaining their communities.” Such quasi-independence would help these communities fight back against ISIS incursions.
Staying to Be Salt and Light in Iraq
Nevertheless, Ramirez explained that many Christians face a great hopelessness about their situation there. “I have met many Chaldean and Assyrian Christians who want to leave because they don’t see a future for themselves there anymore.” These people “can’t return to their villages in the Nineveh plains and there is no economy or security in other areas like Al Qosh that aren’t yet controlled by ISIS.”
Despite their requests, these Christians “have no hope that the Kurdish or Iraqi government will give them an autonomous region in the Nineveh plains.” As a result, “many are either in refugee camps or living in a dependent situation in Erbil/Ankawa and a few other areas.”
Those who choose to stay often do so “because they don’t have an option to leave.”
Some churches show a glimmer of hope, however. Ramirez recalls a few—mostly evangelical—churches which “are encouraging Christians to stay and be a light to others.” These brave souls shine a light in the darkness—even facing the deep evil of the Islamic State.
Those who stay will continue to face the trials and tribulations which have convinced the vast majority of Christians to leave. They need our prayers, and our support, which is why Ramirez’s organization exists—to promote religious freedom across the world. May God protect them.