The last remaining Christians in Northern Iraq have been forced into an exodus from their community’s traditional homes; victims of The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – or ISIS, as they prefer to be called. It is being reported as the biggest mass movement of Christians in the Middle East since the First World War 100 years ago.
The Christian communities in Northern Iraq and in the city of Mosul (Biblical ‘Nineveh’, which is apparently the name ISIS prefers to use) have been there for nearly 1,600 years; pre-dating the advent of Islam. Like, of course, many of the Christian communities in the Middle East, they are among the very oldest and very earliest Christian communities in the world. Things have been getting suspiciously Biblical in Babylon (more on that later).
ISIS, “Kristallnacht” and the Christian Exodus…
This exodus follows a medieval style decree/threat by ISIS that if the Christian community did not either convert to Islam or pay a special tax for non-believers by 19th July they would be put to death; or to quote specifically, there would be “nothing to give them but the sword”.
The language is extraordinary – it’s like we’ve accidentally gone back in time to the Crusades (or extremists have been watching too much Game of Thrones). For the record, the overly zealous men issuing those decrees mostly aren’t tribal, village-dwelling types like much of the Taliban in Afghanistan – they’re relatively literate, educated people, many of them non-Iraqis and some of them in fact recruits from the UK and other Western countries, even Australia in once instance. No, not tribes-people clinging to a quaint way of life and mindset, but frequently young men visibly wearing Western clothes, sports and fashion brands.
But with no levity intended in this observation, the kinds of situations and the types of language we are seeing and hearing now in the Middle East are increasingly medieval, even Biblical; to the extent that I half expect ISIS’s next “decree” to be the murder of all the first-born children. And I’m not being facetious; it can’t have escaped everyone’s notice that these almost deliberately apocalyptic-styled scenarios and statements are all occurring in the lands historically associated with the Biblical myths and narratives – Babylon, Syria, Israel, etc – and the lands most associated with the apocalyptic lore of both Christian and Islamic belief systems (Damascus in particular).
ISIS, in any case, has made clear statements of intent concerning what they’re about and what that will mean for everyone else. In writing about the situation, I have been tempted to post images or videos – of which many exist – of some of ISIS’s war crimes, mass executions, and some of the worst and most inhumane atrocities of the extremist elements of the Syrian Rebel groups. However, I don’t wish to subject any readers to those kinds of horrific – and they are horrific – images; this blog isn’t a place for those kinds of images. If anyone desires to see that kind of evidence of ISIS’s cold-blooded and brutal activities, simply type “ISIS” into Google Images and you’ll find plenty.
And among those images you will find several photos of Christian Arabs who’ve been killed and hung on makeshift crosses – yes, crosses – and left in public places where passers-by (and the passers-by include children in some of the pictures) can look upon the barbaric spectacle.
It really does, on so many levels, feel like we’re describing events from a darker, less civilised epoch, like something that belongs in history texts and not something that is actually transpiring in the 21st century. But then of course there were many in Nazi controlled Europe who would’ve expressed dismay that what was going on in those bleak days could possibly have been happening in the civilised 20th century.
In terms of this sudden turning against Christian minorities, similar treatment and similar ultimatums were inflicted upon ancient Christian communities of Eastern Syria by ISIS’s anti-Assad forerunners during earlier stages of the Syria Civil War. The Syrian Christian communities are even older than those of Northern Iraq and literally were some of the very oldest Christian sites on the planet, those towns and communities being almost two-thousand years old and from the time of the Gospel era itself and the first Christian evangelists.
There are sites in parts of Syria that were visited or occupied by eye-witnesses to the ministry of Jesus and his disciples in their lifetimes, according to tradition. Some Christians from the town of Maaloula, for example, still speak a form of the otherwise extinct Aramaic, the language of
Mel Gibson Jesus.
Following his conversion on the road to Damascus, the tradition goes, Paul of Tarsus established the first organized Christian church at Antioch in ancient Syria; while the head of John the Baptist was believed to be housed in the world-famous Omayyad Mosque (one of the major historic sites that suffered major damage during the fighting). Syria is virtually overflowing with World Heritage Sites, many of which have suffered and will continue to suffer damage due to the ongoing warfare; some, like the Buddhist statues at Bamyan in Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban, may even be lost entirely in the years to come – and with them a crucial part of Human Civilisation’s mutual heritage.
Last year, sources inside the Syrian Orthodox Church had reported an “ongoing ethnic cleansing of Christians” being carried out by the Free Syrian Army rebels, with claims that over 90% of the Christians of Homs had been expelled by militant Islamist Farouq Brigades going door to door and forcing Christians to flee without their belongings, then confiscating their homes.
The Christian population of Homs had dropped from an estimated total of 160,000 before the war to about 1,000. Some have made ominous “Kristallnacht” comparisons to the Nazis seizure of Jewish property; another apt analogy that came to mind for me was the Catholic Church’s medieval persecution and slaughter of several early Christian communities in Europe, particularly France, who wouldn’t subscribe to the Catholic doctrines. But as far as the “Kristallnacht” analogies are concerned, every student of history knows what barbarity it was a precursor to.
NEWS Media and the Propaganda War…
The targeting of Christian communities and sites inside historic Syrian locations has, like many of the crimes of the Syria Civil War, been a subject of confusion in terms of definitively identifying the perpetrators. Some sources blamed Syria’s government forces for those activities, while others blamed the Syrian rebel groups; and others yet accused one side or the other of staging the attacks in order to blame the other side. What we end up with as observers is an extraordinary propaganda war being played out not just by the two sides of the conflict but by opposing media organisations and networks who seem to have their own agenda in terms of what gets reported and how.
For much of the Civil War, for example, the BBC reported with a noticeably pro-rebel bias, often presenting as fact crimes that the rebels had attributed to the Assad regime, despite the fact that other sources were attributing the same crimes to the Syrian rebel groups. Russia Today, for example, frequently were taking the opposite position, blaming the rebels for the worst atrocities and claiming that the Assad regime was being deliberately blamed for certain acts in order to manipulate the international community into sympathising with the rebels.
What’s interesting – if not surprising – is that while there was a strong Western/international push to get support for an attack on Assad’s regime, there was concordantly a tendency in mainstream news media to downplay information that hinted at atrocities being carried out by the rebel groups and to emphasise information that painted the Assad regime as the perpetrators. Yet when that push towards military intervention at the governmental level abated, the mainstream news narrative also started to shift into a more neutral, ‘balanced’ perspective. Curious, is it not?
In February 2012, the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya claimed that Christians in Syria were being persecuted by the government, but the majority of those claims were refuted by official Christian sources in Syria. The Al Arabiya article claimed that the government was targeting churches for alleged support to the opposition, though independent and official Orthodox sources maintained that the attacks were perpetrated by the FSA. In another incident, Al-Arabiya claimed that government forces attacked and raided the historic Syriac Orthodox Um al-Zennar Church in Homs; but official Syrian church sources maintained it was the anti-government militias that used the church as a shield and later damaged its contents on purpose.
Clearly any Saudi-owned media is the last source in the world that should be trusted; the Saudis are behind the long-term dissemination of most of the idealogies that groups such as ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are inspired by; idealogies that are not designed to accommodate Shia Muslims, Christians or the other minority faiths in the region, of which there are several. But the Saudis clearly weren’t the only ones following an agenda. Other major news organisations were seemingly tailoring their coverage to suit a broader agenda. What’s amazing is how obvious this was, even from highly respected and otherwise high-quality, news organisations.
Most of us, I’d imagine, are cynics by now anyway; able to quite easily discern overly staged news coverage from more genuine journalism and reporting.
“The End of Christianity” in the Middle East…
All of that aside, there is genuine fear now for the future and safety of Christian communities living in the Middle East.
Syria and Iraq are presently the most dire situations, with ISIS making it clear they don’t intend to tolerate the Christian minorities in their captured territories. But attacks on traditional Christian communities and interests have been increasing elsewhere in the Middle East for several years now, particularly as a direct result of the collapse of several dictatorships during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ (a series of initially genuine revolutions by dissatisfied peoples, but which was quickly infiltrated and hijacked by foreign influences and criminal elements). It has been going on in post-Mubbarak Egypt, as well as in post-Gadaffi Libya, which once had a very large Christian community that lived perfectly peacefully within Libyan society.
This breakdown of inter-community relations in these locations has been largely downplayed by the Western media, particularly in the case of Libya in the aftermath of the French-British-American-led military intervention to help Al-Qaeda and foreign militants overthrow Colonel Gadaffi.
In Lebanon, which has seen sectarian violence for decades while remaining the only Arab state with a Christian president, a newly established Sunni group calling itself “the battalion of free Sunnis” has threatened to “cleanse” parts of the country of its Christians. While the mass expulsion from Mosul has already been called by some journalists the “end of Christianity in Iraq”, there is a broader concern now even among the more temperate schools of political journalism that we are witnessing the broader ‘end of Christianity’ in the Middle East entirely.
When we talk about Christian communities in the Middle East, we are talking about generally some of the earliest Christian communities, the region itself being the cradle not just of civilization, but the birthplace of Christianity. But even beyond that, Christian communities in some of these locations have lived peacefully alongside Muslim majorities and other religious minorities for generations, being seamlessly integrated into the societies, particularly in
the case of Syria. What has been happening in recent years, particularly as a consequence of the (orchestrated?) collapse of several regimes, is a massive step backwards in terms of inter-religious relations, cross-cultural harmony and of course world peace.
The Fall of Babylon, and Engineered Chaos in the Cradle of Civilisation…
An inevitable question emerges of whether this expanded era of vicious and decisive sectarianism in the Middle East has been somewhat deliberately engineered by parties with a vested interest in this situation and with an agenda for decisive polarisation of societies, communities and religions.
The US seemed to be, for example, actively trying to incite sectarian division by removing Saddam Hussein and installing a primarily Shia government in Iraq, despite the country having an overwhelmingly Sunni majority – a situation that contributed significantly to the spread of terrorism in Iraq and the advent of ISIS. It was a strategy that seemingly made no sense; unless it was designed to lead to this current state of affairs.
Further to this, some commentators have remarked for years that this destructive virus of Islamic extremism, Wahhabism and the violent idealogies of Political Islamism are something that has been deliberately fostered, nurtured, provoked, engineered over a long period of time – not just by the Islamic extremists themselves, but by outside agencies with an agenda to create a very specific, almost apocalyptic climate and environment in that part of the world.
Is the current plight of the Christian minorities in that part of the world part of that agenda?
Although I personally don’t put a great deal of stock in symbolism, I know there are numerous people of a more eschatological mindset who view the various conflicts and manipulations in the Middle East as highly relevant in symbolic, religious or spiritual terms. Some in that department believe that those manipulating the conflicts in the region, whoever they might be, have a vested interest in the Cradle of Civilisation and all of its ancient, historic sites and associations, which they believe to have symbolic power and almost magical value (not entirely dissimilar to how medieval Christian policy makers were obsessed with The Holy Land).
The House of Ananias in Damascus’s Old City.
Iraq was the birthplace of civilisation, containing some of the oldest and most relevant archaeological sites in the world, being the location of the Babylonian, Mesopotamian and Sumerian civilisations.
Syria can be viewed in more or less the same light as an archaeological treasure-trove of a country and it boasts, as previously stated, some of the oldest Christian sites, as well as housing locations of numerous key Biblical references, probably the most famous of which is the allusion to Paul on the “Road to Damascus” or the House of Ananias in the Old City in Damascus.
All of these places – Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Israel – hold immense historic, religious and symbolic significance to powerful parties with not just political but religious agendas; and it’s no coincidence that these are the areas in which this vast, seemingly endless and multi-faceted conflict is being played out. Even some of the language being employed, as mentioned earlier, is designed to evoke apocalyptic mythology and Biblical lore, to the extent that otherwise respectable and sober news journalists are forced to use that kind of language and bring it into the mainstream discourse. Even the same “Isis”, with its connotations of ancient Egyptian mythology and divinity, might be more deliberate than a mere acronym.
Zionism, End-Times Lore, Biblical Prophecy and “The Caliphate”…
It’s worth noting that aside from the intense religious zealotry of an organisation like ISIS itself, there are also highly religious minds involved in key decision-making even in the more sophisticated arenas of ostensibly secular, Western governments; this is certainly the case in the US, but it may be the case elsewhere too. A classic example is that traditional bogeyman of the conspiracy theorist – Zionism.
But while political Zionism is one reality, there is also religious Zionism. People constantly talk about the Jewish Lobby in the US (primarily political Zionism), but the extraordinary thing about religious Zionism is that many religious Zionists are not Jewish at all but Christian; these are people who essentially believe that the modern State of Israel needed to be created in order to fulfill Biblical prophecy. But that vision doesn’t end with the creation of Israel.
For Zionist Christians the obsession is with Christian ‘End Times’ lore, the Second Coming of Christ and the Biblical ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Rapture’. The creation of the State of Israel, the protection of Israel (for the time being), the excessive arming of Israel, and the setting up of an inevitable (in their minds) conflict between opposing civilisations (and their divisive religions), can all be seen as part of a desired Biblical/apocalyptic equation. This obsession with “End Times” lore and prophecy is no new thing, of course; but the Internet is littered with such fanatical nonsense, most of it based on longstanding and sensationalist misinterpretation of Biblical texts.
It is deeply and psychologically embedded into the culture; a classic example is the extremely popular and successful ‘Left Behind’ novel series by Tim La Haye – a mass exercise in retarded, propagandist brainwashing posing as legitimate fiction.
But what’s scary is how immensely popular those books are, especially among young American Christians who have been heavily influenced by its almost romantic glorification of Christian apocalyptic lore and End-Times expectations. So popular, in fact, that it has become an industry in itself, spawning other multi-media products, including (apparently) a major feature-film in the making. The books are awful, by the way.
Of course, it’s a circular construct; if the fulfillment of a prophecy has to be ‘orchestrated’ by human manipulations then it’s hardly a divine prophecy, is it? Then again, if a prophecy ends up being fulfilled – even if it’s by a deliberate scheme to make sure its particulars are met – then it does end up being ‘accurate’, I suppose. The point, however, is that there are highly influential people obsessed with Christian End-Times lore and Biblical prophecy. There are Christian Zionists who will flat-out tell you they are praying for “the final conflict” and the Second Coming – and it has to happen, because of the source material, in the Middle East, specifically involving historical areas such as Israel, Babylon (Iraq), Damascus (in Syria) and Egypt.
These kinds of minds with these kinds of preoccupations may conceivably have been behind the push to invade Iraq in the first place; an invasion that made little strategic sense, it’s only conceivable goal being either oil-based profit (always the likeliest explanation) or, in keeping with the theme here, its symbolic value as an almost mythical battle with the old Biblical enemy of Babylon. It is a fact that Saddam Hussein styled himself as the new “King of Babylon”, even suggesting that he was a reincarnation of Babylon’s most famous ancient king, the Biblical Nebuchednezzar. And he openly stated that it was his intention to “recreate” Babylon. For religious Zionists he and Iraq were an enemy positively brimming with mythical, religious and symbolic significance.
These people are, of course, morons. If we live in a “Global Village”, then these guys are the Village Idiots. But it’s usually the Village Idiot that ends up burning the village down, right? Morons can direct the course of history. This obsession with fulfilling Biblical Prophecy is an extremely dangerous thing and I’ve for a long time worried how much it may have been influencing world affairs, particularly Middle-Eastern affairs and the often confusing or contradictory foreign policy of major Western nations in regard to that part of the world.
Of course there are always political or societal reasons for events of this type occurring too and it’s extremely important to never overlook those, because obviously the solutions to these situations are social and political ones and not religious; but in a situation like this we can’t ignore the significance of symbolism and religious associations.
ISIS too, not to mention Al-Qaeda before them, also have an interest in the fulfillment of prophecy, except from an Islamic perspective and not a Christian or Jewish one. The creation of this “Caliphate”, as they call it, is a construct based not just in Islamic history but in Islamic prophetic tradition; and to those subscribing to that world-view its creation is every bit as ordained as the creation of the State of Israel is to religious Zionists.
Ah, religion and prophecy; don’t you just love it? No, me neither.