In the part of his Sept. 10 speech on confronting the Islamic State that probably drew the least attention, President Obama mentioned the need to help Christians and other minorities, expelled from cities and villages in northern Iraq, return from where they came. “We cannot allow these communities to be driven from their ancient homeland,” he said.
Obama got that wrong. Christians, of whom around 120,000 have taken refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan, will not be going home even if their tormentors suddenly disappear.
I spent 10 days talking with Christian refugees in Irbil, the capital of the northern autonomous region of Kurdistan, this month, and they are adamant they will not be returning to Mosul and nearby towns on what is known as the Nineveh Plain.
It is not simply that these Christians have gone through tremendous trauma. It is not only because they lost everything, including their homes and businesses, and in some cases spent days and even weeks in detention while being badgered to convert to Islam, where they saw babies taken from mothers’ arms to be held for ransom and busloads of young people ferried off into the unknown.
Nor is it because their neighbors, in Mosul but especially in the countryside, welcomed and even joined fighters from the Islamic State, pointed out the homes of minorities and let them know which ones were wealthy.
No, it is because, for Christians in Iraq, the past three months have been the climax of 11 years of hell. We Americans have short memories (that goes for you, too, in the “Bush Was Right” crowd), but it’s worth noting that Christians began having serious problems within a year after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Sometimes it was the work of al-Qaeda, sometimes Sunni insurgents pining for the return of Sunni control of Iraq. Sometimes it was Shiite militias fighting the Sunnis but finding time to persecute Christians.
First came assaults on stores that sold alcohol. Then, in August 2004, bombs were placed outside five churches in Baghdad and Mosul. Eleven people died. Two more churches were bombed in November, and Christians began to flee to Kurdistan, Jordan and Syria. Since then, at least 60 churches in the country have been bombed. The latest was in Baghdad on Christmas Day last year.
Priests and bishops became particular targets, in order to deliver a message to their flock that no one is safe. In Mosul in June 2007, gunmen shot dead a Chaldean Catholic priest and three deacons because the priest refused to convert to Islam. The next year gunmen kidnapped Mosul’s Chaldean archbishop, Paul Rahho, and killed his driver and two bodyguards. The abductors stuffed Rahho into the trunk of a car, from where he was able to call a colleague by mobile phone and instruct the church not to pay ransom. He was found dead a few days later in a shallow grave.
Attacks on lay Christians were continuous. Women received threatening messages demanding that they stop working. Families received death threats attached to demands for money called “daftar,” slang for $10,000. Children were taken and held for ransom. Both Sunni and Shiites, though busy with what amounted to a civil war, found time to attack and expel Christians from the Baghdad suburb of Dora.
All this predated the Islamic State.
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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Daniel Williams is a former senior researcher at Human Rights Watch and Post correspondent.