I've been reading the headlines from northern Iraq over the past two weeks with an intensifying sense of dread. It's a feeling very much like the one I have whenever I read about the disappearance of some huge ice sheet in the Antarctic or the extinction of yet another rare species of animal. It's the feeling that one more valuable ingredient of life on Earth is about to vanish, in all likelihood, forever.
The takeover of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, by the jihadist troops of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is a catastrophe for the people of Iraq, who now face a revival of full-blown sectarian warfare, and a strategic and psychological nightmare for the United States, which sacrificed vast amounts of blood and treasure to topple Saddam Hussein and build a viable government — the latter, it would seem, in vain.
But over the past few days I've found myself mourning a more specific disaster: the flight and dispersal of the last remnants of Iraq's once-proud community of Christians. Emil Shimoun Nona, the archbishop of the Chaldean Catholics of Mosul, has told news agencies that the few Christians remaining in the city prior to the ISIS invasion have abandoned the city. Since the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, he estimates, Mosul's Christian population dwindled from 35,000 to some 3,000. "Now there is no one left," he said. Most of them have joined the estimated 500,000 refugees who have fled the ISIS advance; many of the Christians, including the archbishop, have opted for the relative security of Iraqi Kurdistan. (The photo above shows girls praying in the Church of the Virgin Mary in Bartala, a town to the east of Mosul.)
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The exodus has been triggered, above all, by the jihadists' reputation for bloodlust — a reputation that ISIS has consciously furthered through its own propaganda. A few days ago, the jihadists used social media to distribute photos supporting their claim that they had killed 1,700 Shiite prisoners taken during their rapid offensive. No sooner had ISIS entered Mosul than some of their fighters set fire to an Armenian church. This all seems consistent with the group's grim record during the civil war in Syria, where, among other things, it has revived medieval Islamic restrictions on Christian populations. (It's their fear of Islamist rebels that has tended to align the Syrian Christian community with the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad.)
In 2003, it was estimated that some 1.5 million Iraqis were Christians, about 5 percent of the population. Since then, the overwhelming majority has reacted to widening sectarian conflict and a series of terrorist attacks by leaving the country. (Archbishop Nona's predecessor, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped and killed outside his Mosul church back in 2008.) Almost all of the various Iraqi Christian communities — the Chaldeans (who are part of the Roman Catholic Church), the Armenians, the Syriac Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox — have benefited from large émigré contingents around the world who have welcomed refugees from Iraq.
I'm glad that these believers have saved themselves and their faith, but their emigration comes at a cost — as they themselves are only too aware. For the past 2,000 years, Iraq has been home to a distinct and vibrant culture of Eastern Christianity. Now that storied history appears to be coming to an end. Even if the ISIS forces are ultimately driven back, it's hard to imagine that the Mosul Christians who have fled will see a future for themselves in an Iraq dominated by the current Shiite dictatorship of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which enjoys strong support from Iran.
June 15, 2014: Iraqis attend mass in Alqosh, a small village 30 miles from Mosul. Many Christian families have fled to the town. | (AP Photo)
It's worth adding, perhaps, that Christians aren't the only ones in this predicament. Iraq is also home to a number of other religious minorities endangered by the country's polarization into two warring camps of Islam. The Yazidis follow a belief system that has a lot in common with the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism; about a half a million of them live in northern Iraq. The Mandaeans, numbering only 30,000 or so, are perhaps the world's last remaining adherents of Gnosticism, one of the offshoots of early Christianity. By tradition many Mandaeans are goldsmiths — a trade that has made them prominent targets for abduction in the post-invasion anarchy of Iraq. Losing these unique cultures makes the world a poorer place.
In the fall of 2003, when I was on assignment in Iraq, I had a chance to travel to Mosul. It was a fateful moment for the U.S.-led occupation, then just a few months old. I interviewed Gen. David Petraeus, the commander of the American forces in the city and its surrounding region. The insurgency that had already flared into life in other parts of the country was only just reaching Mosul; while I was there, several American soldiers were attacked by an angry mob and killed — a harbinger of long years of violence to come.
But I soon discovered that there was a lot more to Mosul than the headlines. The citizens of Mosul I met welcomed me with a spontaneous hospitality that I hadn't really experienced in the Iraqi capital. This may have had something to do with the fact that Baghdad, the heart of Saddam Hussein's brutal Baathist state, retained little palpable sense of its rich historical past. Baghdad had an almost Soviet soullessness — the vast tracts of ugly prefab housing wouldn't have looked out of place in Warsaw or Beijing. Mosul, by contrast, still retained its character as an Ottoman trade route city, a place both scruffy and intimate. And it was enlivened by a proud sense of its own diversity: You never knew whether the next person you were going to meet was a Sunni or a Shiite, a Kurd or a Christian.
The Christians were especially fascinating — above all, because it was hard to escape the sense that you were witnessing the practice of traditions you weren't going to find anywhere else. Some of Mosul's Christians answer to Rome; some follow various Orthodox patriarchs; and some, like the members of the Ancient Church of the East, are beholden to no authority but their own. There are Christians in and around Mosul who still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ.
I found myself admiring the interior of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Mar Toma (St. Thomas), brilliantly lit by long strings of light bulbs. The parishioners were especially proud of their big display Bible in the ancient tongue of Syriac, whose elaborate calligraphy adorned surfaces in many parts of the building. (The church is also home to a set of rare manuscripts in Syriac and Garshuni, a dialect of Arabic used by medieval Christians.) No one actually knows how old the church is, but it dates back at least to the eighth century. I also paid a visit to St. Paul's Cathedral, the seat of the Chaldean Christians' archbishop, a stolid stone building that looked as though it could withstand any attack. A year later it was bombed by jihadi insurgents, badly damaging the structure.
For what it's worth, the city's long history of peaceful coexistence doesn't seem to be completely dead. Archbishop Nona has told of Muslims in Mosul banding together to guard the city's churches from looting, and other reports from Mosul suggest that the Islamists are trying to assuage the fears of religious minorities in the city.
But the Christians of northern Iraq can hardly be blamed if they're unwilling to bank on these faint glimmers of hope — the jihadists' record speaks too eloquently against them. Back in 2003, there was little inkling of the disaster that was about to befall Iraq's Christians. Today, there seems to be little that can be done to reverse it.