One of the unique features of Iraq was always its rich ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that spanned thousands of years and across multiple civilisations. Religious co-existence generally prevailed until the fall of Saddam and the rise of extremist groups.
The Christian community from the Chaldeans, Assyrians, Mandeans and various other sects have dwelled in the Nineveh plains for more than 1700 years with Nineveh itself a centre of many biblical prophets and events.
The Christian numbers dwindled from as high as 60,000 before the fall of Saddam Hussein to around 30,000 by June of this year.
On the hand, Yezidi Kurds, number over 300,000 and are one of the world’s old religious communities with roots in Zoroastrianism and a mix of other faiths.
Persecution of the Yezidi and Christian minorities over the past decade or so is not new with thousands driven out, murdered or faced with intimidation and threats.
However, the Christian and Yezidi fate took a new twist as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came storming along in Iraq, changing not only the political and geographic makeup of Iraq but its religious framework.
In recent days, thousands of Yezidis were brutally killed and driven out of their homes as Sinjar was overrun, with thousands more stranded and dying of thirst and starvation in appalling conditions on Sinjar Mountain.
Vian Dakhil, a Yezidi MP, made a passionate plea as the human catastrophe intensified, “There is now a campaign of genocide being waged on the Yezidi…We are being slaughtered…” Thousands of Peshmerga were mobilised as part of an ongoing counter-offensive against ISIS positions.
In recent weeks, ISIS issued a “dhimma” by which Christians and other minorities were given the choices to convert to Islam or pay the “Jizya” protection fee, and in the event they refused “then there is nothing to give them but the sword”.
By noon deadline of the next day, Christians were flocking in the thousands to the safety of Kurdistan.
Patriarch Louis Sako told the AFP, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” whilst emphasising that “this has never happened in Christian or Islamic history.”
In the past few weeks, ISIS has destroyed religious relics and buildings dating back thousands of years. One of those reportedly destroyed was the tomb of Jonah. History takes thousands of years to build but in the blink of an eye is forever destroyed.
From Sassanid Persian rule to rule under the Umayyads, Abbassid, Hamdanid dynasty, Seljuks, Persian Safawids and the Ottoman Empire, Christian and religious minorities have largely preserved their faith and communities.
Baghdad did little to offer the Christians and other minorities protection since 2003 and under the the latest wave of persecution against Yezidis and Christians, the West and Baghdad watch on as the Islamic State is carved in front of their eyes and religious minorities are driven out of their homes.
The West in particular could have done much more over the past several years to help alleviate the suffering of these communities. Now with yet another humanitarian crisis unfolding at the hands of ISIS with thousands of Yezidi’s under great danger, global powers cannot afford to sit idle.
“The world must act, speak out, consider human rights” warned Chaldean Catholic Bishop Shlemon Warduni.
Indeed, Christian persecution is not new, but the recent events finally caught global attention. With ISIS gunmen now occupying Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Iraq, the plight of the Christian community there cannot be ignored. The question now is whether widespread condemnation will be met with any real action or international response on the ground.
Expressing grave concern, Pope Francis in his weekly public prayers decried the plight of the Christians, “Today they are persecuted. Our brothers are persecuted. They’ve been driven away. They must leave their homes without being able to take anything with them.”
With its own rich history, Kurdistan has always been a sanctuary for minorities and a symbol of religious and ethnic co-existence. It is the duty to protect any human, regardless of religion or ethnicity when they are faced with death and repression especially when they come running to you as men of understanding, compassion and protection. However, Kurdistan cannot shoulder the burden alone with ISIS becoming anything but a local crisis and now a grave global concern.
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani vowed the full support and resources of his government resources to help the displaced families, and asked “the people of Dohuk and Erbil provinces to rush to help the displaced Christian families.”
Barzani appealed for international help to support the ever growing number of refugees in Kurdistan.
Barzani added, “We also encourage them to support the KRG in order to increase its relief efforts and be able to properly assist these families in times of crises.”
Meanwhile, Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani made a passionate pledge to the fleeing Christians, “We will all either die together or we will live together with dignity.” Barzani also vowed to “defend Shingal and our Yezidi brothers and sisters.”
Rather than attempts at halting the drive towards Kurdish independence, on the contrary the West should support a new Kurdish state that not only will finally give the Kurds a well-deserved and long-denied homeland, but would afford unique protection and preservation of minorities and age-old history.