ERBIL, Iraq – By most measures, the Middle East’s most devastated Christian community today lies in Iraq, where a US-led invasion in 2003 ripped the lid off sectarian tensions, and where today the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant holds sway over large swaths of the country.
A 1987 Iraqi census pegged the number of Christians at 1.4 million, which, if accurate, would have made it the second largest Christian community in the Middle East after Egypt’s. Today, Iraq’s Catholic bishops estimate that there may be no more than 200,000 Christians left.
In August, Iraqi Christians marked the grim one-year anniversary of an Islamic State offensive in the Nineveh plains in northern Iraq that broke out on Aug. 6-7, 2014, which left thousands of Christians and members of the Yazidi sect dead. It also drove an estimated 120,000 Christians into exile either inside the country, in places such as Kirkuk and Erbil, or in refugee camps in nations such as Turkey and Jordan.
During the assault, churches and monasteries were destroyed, centuries-old Christian manuscripts were burned, and scores of Christians were killed, often in staggeringly brutal fashion – flogged to death, beheaded, and, in at least a few cases, reportedly crucified.
During previous periods of persecution, many Christians had taken refuge in the Plains of Nineveh, seeing it as a sanctuary because it was dotted with picturesque traditional Christian settlements. One Iraqi Christian compared the psychological blow of those plains now becoming a killing field to a child being violated in his or her own bedroom, the very place they most expect to be safe.
The horror stories are coming almost too quickly to catalog.
Canon Andrew White is an Anglican pastor who previously divided his time between the United Kingdom and Iraq, where he was known as the “Vicar of Baghdad.” He left the country for good in 2014 after the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered him to do so, based on security risks and the church’s policy of not paying ransom for hostages.
In December 2014, White revealed that after his departure, four Christian children under the age of 15 had been executed by ISIS members for refusing to convert to Islam.
“ISIS turned up and said to the children, ‘You say the words that you will follow Muhammad,’” White recounted. “The children … said, ‘No, we love Jesus, we have always loved Jesus’.”
“They chopped all their heads off,” White said. “How do you respond to that? You just cry.”
George Marlin, author of “Christian Persecutions in the Middle East,” is also the US chairman of Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic humanitarian and advocacy group supporting persecuted Christians. He quotes a local priest to the effect that Christians now living in exile “may be turning their backs on Iraq and the Middle East forever.”
Fifteen-year-old Roaa Hussam embodies the trend.
As of December 2014, she was living in the “Erbil Mall,” a four-story former shopping center in the northern Iraqi city converted into a makeshift refugee center for roughly 400 Christian families fleeing Islamic State violence.
Not long ago, Erbil was a growing commercial hub, but today it’s largely a city in ruins. Behind church walls and abandoned sport centers, and in the shade of half-finished buildings, up to 400,000 refugees await a permanent destination that might take years to be identified.
Hussam, her parents, and her three younger siblings fled their home in the largely Christian town of Qaraqosh in August 2014. With dreams of being a doctor, she’s trying to continue her schoolwork on her own by taking cell phone images of pages from the few textbooks making the rounds in the refugee center.
She told Crux that her dream is to resettle in Australia, where other members of her family have already made a new life.
There’s also Nareman Jameel Oolo, a young computer engineer whose father was killed by Islamic militants when she was just 14, and who learned pitch-perfect English by conversing with US soldiers before their withdrawal.
Oolo, too, wants to pull up roots.
“I’ve already left everything behind,” she said. “What’s there left for me?”
So desperate has the situation become that the leader of Iraq’s Catholic community, Patriarch Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church, issued an edict in fall 2014 demanding that priests who fled the country without permission must return, because otherwise there would be no way to keep the church afloat.
A majority of those priests, nine of whom have taken refuge in the United States, defied the order and appealed their case to Pope Francis.
The Rev. Noel Gorgis, now living near San Diego, said that returning to Iraq as a Catholic priest would be “suicide.” He said that if Francis orders him to do so, he’ll comply, but “I don’t believe he’ll say, ‘Go kill yourself!’”
Perhaps nothing captures the desperation among Iraqi Christians better than priests actually begging the pope not to send them home.