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ISIS May Be Defeated, But Will Its Ideology?

Islamic State Of Iraq and Syaria (ISIS)

Islamic State Of Iraq and Syaria (ISIS)

John Burger - published on 03/13/15

Assyrian priest fears for survival of Christianity in the Middle East

Pope Francis will offer a Mass next month to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. For one priest in Iraq, at least, that genocide is not a thing of the past.

The Ottoman Empire in 1915 went after not only Armenian Christians but Assyrians as well. A priest of the Assyrian Church of the East, Archimandrite Emanuel Youkhana, is quick to point out its relevance to what’s happening today.

Speaking about Christians living in villages along the Khabur River in northeastern Syria, who were forced from their homes recently by the advancing forces of the Islamic State group and who anxiously await news of more than 250 of their relatives and neighbors who are being held by ISIS, Father Youkhana says, “Their grandfathers survived the Christian genocide of 1915…. The survivors fled to Dohuk, which became part of the new state of Iraq. A year after Iraq became a member of the League of Nations, in 1932, on August 6 and 7, 1933, a new massacre and the first genocide in the new Iraq took place in Semele, near Duhok, against Christian Assyrians.”

Ironically, August 6 and 7 of 2014 saw the Islamic State group take control of Christian areas of northern Iraq, and Father Youkhana’s organization, the Christian Aid Program in Northern Iraq, has been helping to meet the needs of thousands of people taking refuge in and around Erbil.

Now, after 100 years, the grandsons of the Ottoman-era Assyrians are trying to survive a new massacre, Father Youkhana says.

“Three massacres for the same people in one century,” said the priest. “Enough of this open ended persecution.”

He points out that the current onslaught is accompanied by the destruction of Assyrian historical artifacts in places like Mosul, Hatra and Nimrud.

“If our history is being destroyed and our historical sites are demolished, and our present is being targeted and we are being massacred, can we have a future?” he asks. “Is there any future if there is no past and no present?”

Father Youkhana spoke by phone Thursday about the Khabur River valley captives, the ideology behind ISIS, and what the international community must do to help the Christian community survive in its historic Middle Eastern homeland.

Could you review what happened to the Christian hostages from the Khabur River area? How were they abducted? What is the latest?

On February 23, IS managed to advance and take over the southern part of the Khabur River, the Assyrian region where we have 35 villages. Half of them are on the southern part of the Khabur, half on the northern part. So they advanced to the southern part and were able to control all the villages there, but because of the river, thank God, they were unable to advance to the northern part. They were able to advance only to two of the villages because the level of the water helped them in that regionTel Jezira and Tel Gouran. Villages in the northern parts were saved from the attacks, but of course people were scared, so the whole region of Khabur fled—some 1,200 families. Now they are displaced: around 1000 are in the city of Hassakah, and another 200 in Qamishli.

As to the hostages, according to the early figures we had we’re speaking about 51 families. But then we learned there were hostages from other villages, so in total there were around 287 captives.

Thank God one week laterlast week19 were released and then another four the next day. So 23 were released, and around 250 are still captives.

We have had long decades of peaceful coexistence in the region of Khabur, as a Church, as a community. We’ve lived in peace and good relations with all our neighbors, whether Arabs or Sunnis or Kurds, so we invest on this long history of peaceful coexistence, that there will be hopefully a peaceful release of the captives. There are women and children

they had nothing to do with this fight or battles or political positions. They are normal people living normal lives, so we hope that prominent Arab tribal leaders can be a channel for us, to help.
But these issues are very sensitive. We should be very careful in handling them, or coming out with public statements.

Are you hearing reports from people living under ISIS control? What are they saying?

In all ISIS controlled areas in Iraq and Syria, you can’t say there are Christian communities living under ISIS. They all escaped. The only ones left are the people who failed to flee. The advance of IS was so fast, or some individuals lacked the means to flee. So there are no Christians living in IS regions willingly.

So the sources of information are very limited. But speaking for the captives, the only source we have are the tribal leaders who are confirming that  they are not harmed, so far, and what we have witnessed from the 23 who were released, they all gave the testimony that they were not harmed, they were not tortured.

But speaking again to the question of Christians under IS, you see what happened in Mosul: they were given the ultimatum either to convert to Islam or to flee or to pay the jizya. So what kind of life, even if you manage to stay?

Is the jizya a very heavy tax?

They are using the so-called Sharia, and according to Sharia there are categories for wealthy people, for young people, for children. But the idea is not how much you owe, it’s the principle: why do I have to pay? And are you going to survive and live as a Christian even if you pay? You see the crosses are being removed from all the churches, in Mosul, for example. In many cases the cross has been built into the facade of the building. Now in the case of the St. George monastery, which was founded more than 1000 years ago, the cross has been removed from the dome of the church and two days ago they bombed the front wall because there was a built-in cross.

So even if you pay the jizya,… If moderate Muslims are not willing and not happy to live under IS, how can a Christian live?

One of the freed hostages, in an interview with the Assyrian International News Agency, said that he and the others feel that they can not go back to their homes now, that they will go to Lebanon. How widespread is this feeling among Christians in the region?

There is an extra factor pushing our people to flee. Migration is something normal for all countries, all communities. But what’s harming us—not only Assyrian Christians but all Christians under Islam in these countriesis that the diaspora is becoming bigger and stronger than in the homeland. The church parishes are more than what is left in the homelandthe academic-elite people, the financial capacity of our people. But we should keep in mind that a diaspora is a diaspora when there is a homeland. Otherwise, it’s meaningless.

Migration is an outcome of two groups of factors: one, pushing factorssecurity, unclear future, unemployment, poverty, etc., and the other group of factors are attracting factorsa better economic situation, living in dignity, living in organized countries, etc.

So in our case, we have a lot of attracting factors because of 100 years of diaspora, every family has more than half of their family in the diaspora, so they are attracting. And we have pushing factors with what’s going on in Iraq and Syria. So the outcome is that the tendency of our people is to migrate, and now what happened in Khabur, especially with the captives, it is very understandable.

But I myself strongly believe that the diaspora cannot be a homeland. The diaspora can be an individual solution for individual cases. You may offer the solution for several families, but what about 300,000-plus Christians in Iraq? What about a million Christians in Syria? Should they all leave? It is our commitment

ourselves, our Churchto keep Christians communities in our homelands. Should Christianity become a museum in its homeland? What about 2000 years of Eastern Christian Church’s contribution? To escape is not the solution of the problem.

Can you update us on the situation of the internally displaced persons in northern Iraq? They fled Mosul and villages of the Nineveh Plain last summer and have spent an entire winter in camps and trailers and unfinished buildings in Erbil. Is hope wearing thin?

What happened in northern Iraq with the dramatic collapse of the Iraqi army and the dramatic advance of IS in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain is something that was never expected to happen this fast. It’s not the first time people are fleeing from Mosul, by the way. What makes it different this time? First, this mass exodus—no Christians are left in Mosul—the volume of displacement.

The second issue is that it is now nine monthsa long time for displacement. This is making it more difficult for people to survive and restore and to be confident of going back home. The only families that went back are in Alquosh, which was not reached by IS, but people fled because they were scared. So people went back after they were assured that IS cannot advance.

But speaking for Christians in the Nineveh Plain and Mosul, they are now lacking the confidence that they will go back in the near future to their villages. When they fled in August they were hoping they would be able to celebrate Christmas back home. Now we are approaching Easter, and there is no indication that they will be able to go back soon. 

In addition, what makes this case special is the position and attitude and behavior of their next door neighbors. We were betrayed by our neighbors, who we shared with for decades and centuries. So there is a lack of trust. We can’t trust. It’s not only the issue of security, that IS will be defeated, definitely it will be defeated sooner or later. But just to restore Quaraquosh or Bartilla or these Christian towns on the Nineveh Plain, to liberate them from the hands of Daeshis it enough for people to go back? No. There’s this issue of confidence that it will not happen again, the issue of trustcan I trust my next door neighbor, the Arab Sunni? The issue of infrastructure: all has been damaged.

So there are too many reasons to believe the return will not happen soon. Therefore there should be a clear plan, first, of course, to liberate it sooner, on the military level, but at the same time to protect it, to grant the status of governorate of Nineveh Plain so that the non-Muslim minoritiesChristian, Yazidiscan elect their governor as all Iraqis are doing in every governorate, so they will have a portion of the Iraqi budget so they can rebuild what has been damaged. So that they feel they are building their future themselves in partnership with the Iraqi state.

Unfortunately we don’t see a clear plan for this. Thanks to all, speaking on humanitarian level, on Church level, organizations, speaking on military level, who are helping the IDPs and stopping the advance of IS. But we are so far only dealing with outcomes of the problem; we need to deal with the roots of the problem. Otherwise there will be an opening [for terrorists].

This year is the 100th anniversary of the Christian genocide under the Ottomans, but we are still living the same. So it’s an open-ended genocide for Eastern Christians. We need to deal with the rootsotherwise it will happen again.

How can a governorate be initiated?

It’s a very clear legal, constitutional way, and they started before the advance of IS. The cabinet can suggest to the parliament to create it. We have 18 governorates in Iraq, and the 19th will be created soon, the Halabjah (in Kurdistan). So Nineveh would be maybe the 20th. But is there any political will for Muslim ruling parties, whether Shi’ites or Sunnis, to give this dignity to the Christians and Yazidis? The dhimmitude culture is ruling in Baghdad, by Shia and Sunnis. The Christians and non-Muslims are not a priority. We no more trust the nice wording that comes from Iraqi rulers in Baghdad after every massacre, every persecution. We feel enough is enough. We need action.

So we call upon the international community to do something. It was good that the US had this military intervention to stop the advance of IS. It’s good that western countries are all in this one position to defeat IS on the military level. But this is the outcome, and we should deal with the roots. The root is this intolerant culture, intolerant persecution, intolerant legislation toward non-Muslims.

So they could put pressure on Baghdad to pass this legislation to create this Nineveh Plain province, and then with the material support of the Western countries and people in the diaspora to rebuild this province so Christians there feel they have a future.

You said the Islamic State will eventually be defeated. What gives you that confidence, and how will it happen?

Such a brutal, barbaric group cannot control and operate a state of 6 million to 8 million people. I’m not a military man, but militarily speaking they cannot survive; they will be defeated. The military existence of IS is the outcome of the culture of IS, of intolerant Islam. So we will defeat IS, definitely.  

But what’s promoted by IS, according to Islamic Sharia, about how they consider, how they look toward the non-Muslims is there. The discrimination is there. The military advance of IS is the outcome. We should deal with the roots, and the roots are there. With a couple of clicks you can find it in Google, the root of the problem. Just go to see what is the curriculum in Saudi Arabia, in Qatar, in the Gulf States, what the curriculum in the schools is telling about the non-Muslims. Just click and see the imams—you can see on Youtube, how they are nurturing, how they are educating people. I totally disagree with people who are coming with excuses for extremism, that it’s because of poverty, like the statement from the White House that to defeat IS we should think about jobs and employment, etc. Please! Okay, poverty is, poverty always, poverty is a good environment for radicals, for these groups. But the poverty in southeast Asia, in India and other places, in Africa, is much more than the poverty in Arab countries. But have you seen a non-Muslim terrorist group coming from an African or Asian poor country? And what about the 10,000 insurgents coming from Europe? Is it poverty? No, it is education.

As long as these countries are not reviewing the constitution to be a secular one, to separate religion from the state, from politics, this discrimination will keep going…. It’s not a Syrian or Iraqi issue. It’s an issue of non-Muslim minorities under Islam.

Sorry to say, we as Eastern Christians, including myself, are big liars, because we had always claimed, because of this dhimmitude behavior, dhimmitude attitude that we are used to that for 14 centuries; we say we have always been in peace with our Muslim neighbors. No, sorry sir! We have never been in peace.

Similarly, the mistake made by western countries, whether Church or decision makers, that you try to beautify Islam more than Muslims should do. It’s very often now you see it, even politicians. Mr. Obama himself, and others: “Yeah, IS is not Islam.” Sorry sir! IS is very Islam.

Do you feel the US is taking a wise approach in the fight against ISIS, ruling out boots on the ground, conducting airstrikes and training local forces?

I’m not a military man but without the support of the US and western countries, IS was to advance to Erbil and Baghdad and there would be a collapse of the whole region…. But if you ask me is it enough what’s done so far? I would say no. If it was, at least there was a chance to stop the advance of IS earlier and to stop the barbaric actions later on, for example, what they are doing in Hatra and Nimrud, destroying all this memory of human civilization. This is now our question as Assyrians: if our past has been destroyed and our present is being taken, is there any future?

So I think the American military can do more. How, I don’t know; I’m not a military man. Should they deploy ground forces? Should they equip the Peshmerega? The only reliable forces who are fighting against IS on the ground are the Peshmerga. …

How is Iran becoming involved, and why? What might this lead to? How might it ultimately affect the Christian communities of the Middle East?

Shiites in Iraq are the majority, and they were ruled by a Sunni minority. Having a Shia state in Iran, the Shia in Iraq consider themselves committed or loyal to them. so it’s a good tool for Iranian politicians to use. … But are Christians under Shia better or under Sunnis better? I would ask, rather: Are the Christians worse under Shia than under Sunni? No, I would say that under Shia it’s bad, but under Sunni are worse.

This doctrine of Shi’ites is more flexible. They can accept debate, can accept dialogue. They are not Salafists: what’s been done 1000 years ago—how they were eating, what they were wearing, how they had their hair or their beards should be done now.

At the end of the day [Iran is] a Sharia state.

I cannot understand America’s position. They are so harsh against Iran, while they are so friendly with Saudi Arabia, while the curriculum in Saudi Arabia is the source of all education of terrorist groups: all terrorists all over the world who are attacking with suicide bombs, Sept. 11, the Taliban, are all Sunnis, they are driven by the Wahabis,  and by the education in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. But for Mr. Obama and other countries, Saudi Arabia is an ally and a good friend. This I cannot understand.

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

Christians in the Middle EastIraqIslamIslamist MilitantsSyria
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