The threat to Christian identity in Iraq
What happens when people are forced from their ancient homeland?
The term ‘persecution’ and its definition are known to most Christians. Christians suffered persecution since their first formation as a community. And, through history, Christians in different places in the world experienced direct persecution that came in different forms. So, to tell the truth, being persecuted because I am a Christian is not something that comes as a surprise. Hearing about persecution, we also learn about some courageous people who keep their faith and are ready to die for it. The fact that these people are so faithful is something extraordinary. Yet, it is sad that at this time of freedom and modernity, there are people who are persecuted because of their faith.
Being killed or murdered because of faith is brutal. But in my view, that is not the ugliest thing that persecution could end with. There is another aspect of persecution that could be as devastating as murder as a means of erasing individuals as well as groups of people.
In fact, what is most dangerous about persecution is not threatening someone’s life, but rather threatening someone’s faith. Therefore, speaking about the persecution of Christians in Iraq, in what follows I will focus on how persecution by the so-called Islamic State is threatening our Christian identity, one intimately connected with a certain community and a certain place.
Many have heard about what happened in Iraq in August 2014. ISIS invaded the Nineveh Plain and forced thousands of Christians to leave Mosul and the towns in which they have been living since the first centuries of Christianity. Even though some towns are being liberated from ISIS after more than two years, the loss that persecution caused left Christians wounded and deeply affected. It is true that almost all of them survived ISIS, but crucial aspects of their faith or the way faith was expressed have changed or even been lost. That is not because the persecuted doubted their faith. Instead, there were factors caused by persecution that brought to an end some crucial characteristics of their faith. Leaving the land drained religious passions that were connected with the land. These are traditions that are meaningful and nourish faith only because they are practiced in the Christian towns in the Plain of Nineveh.
The Christian community in Iraq is considered one of the oldest Christian communities. The vast majority of members of this community speak the Aramaic language. The Plain of Nineveh in the north of Iraq is the Iraqi province that the majority of Christians inhabited. There were more than 125,000 of them living in the city of Mosul and in the towns and villages surrounding it. They belonged to different churches like the Ancient Church of the East, the Chaldean Catholic Church, the Syriac Catholic Church, and the Syriac Orthodox Church.
Since they left their towns, Christians realized that one of ISIS’s main reasons to attack them and evacuate the Nineveh Plain was to wage a war against their cultural heritage, against their past and their future at the same time, and against the local traditions that shaped their Christian identity for centuries. And that goes far more harmful than killing individuals. There is an example I would like to present.
One of the important practices that the Christians of the Plain of Nineveh had in their towns was their respect for the shrines and tombs of martyrs. There are five remarkable shrines in Nineveh. Venerating saints and martyrs through walking in pilgrimage to these shrines marked the religious sense of Iraqi Christians. There were feasts and seasons when Christians visited these shrines to express crucial aspects of their identity. Through years and centuries these pilgrimages became traditions that were as old as Christianity in Iraq. During a pilgrimage, a community gathers to live a religious experience that immensely enriches them and strengthens their faith.
Firstly, being in relation with these shrines, they were connecting themselves with the past. These shrines were like wells of wisdom and moral virtue for those who attended the celebration. At the same time, these shrines were like oases for the community on pilgrimage where they can get the strength and comfort to continue on their way into the holy shrine in the heavenly temple. Secondly, the community gathered around the shrine where they declared that they do belong to that community of saints and martyrs. They desire to continue in the spiritual way their ancestor started. Thirdly, they teach their children how their future is likely to be. Attending those feasts created social, cultural, and spiritual harmony.
For centuries Christians in the Plain of Nineveh practiced and kept this tradition with such enthusiasm. That tradition gave them a solid sense of community. Every time the shrines were visited, the whole community would declare their will to continue with the faith of the apostles and saints. But ISIS swept that away, and for more than two years, the Christians of Nineveh have been exiled, far away from their homeland. This tradition that is connected with land and community would end as the people were forced into exile from the land. It was hard for the Christians to realize that by leaving their land they were losing what made them special, and they were slowly becoming assimilated to the world.
It was unexpected that ISIS would enter the area that Christians for ages believed was well protected by its churches, shrines, and saints. No one would believe that the town would be cleared of Christians in few days. Christians had to face a reality they never predicted. They are away from their land, and they are in the exile weeping the past and fearing the future.
The land was very important in the estimation of this people. There is religious passion connected with the land. Pilgrimage to holy places as religious practice is an integral part of our culture, and it contributes to the forming the basis of Iraqi identity. The basis of our existence will become only stories from the past.
ISIS was not only after individuals or money. It was really after history. It was after what marked the Christianity in the Middle East with its special seal. Having left everything behind, people feel that they do not have much to offer the world: no identity, no traditions, no history. They have to start from zero, turning to the world to ask for their basic needs. That feeling of lost dignity makes many lose their confidence in the government and friends. They have to form a new community, a new way of living in peace. They need to trust in new norms that would not connect them with their past. They have to plant their seeds in a new land and move forward.
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