When Jews are killed, we make sure the world knows. When Palestinians are killed, the Web explodes. So why is it that when Christians are murdered and persecuted en masse, no one seems to care — not even other Christians?
We see this mystery playing out in Iraq with the hundreds of thousands of members of Christian minorities whose deaths have not yet provoked an outcry.
It was only last week, when the torture and killing had reached such extreme levels that the world began to take notice, that President Barack Obama ordered United States humanitarian and military intervention to rescue some 40,000 members of the Yazidis, a non-Muslim minority cornered by radical Muslims on a mountain outside of Mosul.
“It’s a full-scale genocide,” Nuri Kino, a Swedish-Assyrian journalist, told me recently. “They are bombing near Mosul as we speak. It’s so frustrating to hear the U.S. media say this is so sudden and surprising. Systematic ethnic cleansing has been going on from day one, and it’s going to get worse.”
For 10 years, Kino has been writing about the growing strength of fundamentalist Sunni groups in Iraq and Syria, and of their persecution of those countries’ non-Muslim groups.
What Kino has been writing and speaking about for years is now on CNN. But when I reached him by phone last week in Sweden, just before his next secret trip into the Middle East, Kino was far too emotionally wrought to feel vindicated.
A fundamentalist Sunni Muslim group calling itself the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has taken over swaths of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. It is murdering, pillaging and exiling thousands of people from other ethnic and religious groups. ISIS gives Christians who live in the many villages in northern Iraq a choice: Convert to Islam, leave or be killed.
“Being a Turkmen, a Shabak, a Yazidi or a Christian in [Islamic State] territory can cost you your livelihood, your liberty or even your life,” Human Rights Watch’s Middle East executive director Sarah Leah Whitson said in a press release on Saturday from Iraqi Kurdistan.
As of last week, America has finally taken notice — and action. Kino and others fighting for the cause worry that tomorrow the airdrops and the spotlight will disappear, but the problem won’t.
The Yazidis are an ancient minority whose religion recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but also combines elements of Zoroastrianism, Islam and other local traditions. They are just the latest target in ISIS’ genocidal campaign focused largely on Christian minorities.
Assyrians are Christians who speak a linguistic relative of Aramaic. Of the 2 million Assyrians worldwide, about 400,000 live in the United States. Only 250,000 remain in their homeland.
There, ISIS’ documented abuses include executing Assyrian women who refuse to wear a hijab; raping a mother and daughter for not paying a religious tax; destroying the purported tomb of the Prophet Jonah, whom Assyrians revere; kidnapping; forced sexual slavery; and depriving refugees of clean water and food.
Since taking power from the Iraq army, ISIS has gone on a spree of killing and forcibly exiling all of the Assyrian, Chaldean and other Christian communities in its path. As far back as 2007, ISIS bombed a Yazidi village and killed 500 people.
In July, in Mosul, ISIS thugs painted the Arabic letter ن (noon) on the doors of Christian homes after their original inhabitants fled, were forced out or murdered. ن is the first letter of the Arabic Nasrani, the word for Christians.
The Assyrian diaspora community in Europe and America has been trying, without success, to draw the world’s attention to this campaign of intimidation and terror. A group called A Demand for Action organized a series of protests across the United States earlier this month, including one in front of the Federal Building in Westwood that drew about 200 marchers, mostly local Assyrians and Chaldeans.
“It is a modern-day Holocaust,” Suzan Younan, the organization’s spokeswoman, told me. “I compare Jewish homes that the Nazis painted a Star of David on with Christian homes that ISIS painted an ‘N’ on. There is a another genocide happening as we speak.”
What especially frustrates Kino is that this has been going on with almost no outcry from American politicians or religious leaders.
“We hear, ‘Gaza, Gaza, Gaza.’ ‘Ukraine, Ukraine, Ukraine.’ But where are the Christian leaders of the United States?” Kino demanded, his voice breaking. “These people are the roots of Christianity. They speak Jesus’ mother tongue. Shame on Sarah Palin, all those so-called good Christians. Shame on both Democrats and Republicans.”
Kino heaped scorn on American politicians who didn’t see this genocide coming.
The region is full of ethnic minorities with competing claims and agendas. The Assyrians are the largest of the Christian minorities, buffeted on one side by Kurds, who want the oil-rich Nineveh plains — the Assyrian ancestral homelands — as part of a future Kurdistan, and on the other by ISIS, which wants them gone, or dead.
Saddam Hussein granted Iraq’s forced-together minorities their religious rights, even as he denied them political rights. The Ba’athist Assad family ruled neighboring Syria the same way.
At the risk of raising the back hairs of died-in-the-wool partisans, much of the blame for the current debacle belongs to the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.
“When the U.S. invaded Iraq,” Kino said, “it was amazing how unaware they were of the different sects of Islam and other religions. But this genocide was easy to predict. It’s what happens when you take power from the Sunnis and give it to the Shiites, then you guys leave the country and the Shiites discriminate, then of course the radicals will react.”
Fundamentalist Sunni groups have been marauding through the area for decades. Ideologically, they are the spawn of the extreme ideology that bred the Muslim Brotherhood — Hamas and al-Qaida.
“ISIS is just al-Qaida. There’s no difference,” said Kino, who wrote a novel, The Line in the Sand, and an as-yet-unproduced screenplay about the Assyrians’ plight.
But this is the difference between ISIS and many radical Islamist groups: ISIS has plenty of guns and money. Where ISIS has overpowered the Iraqi army, it has captured the latest American weaponry. It controls oil fields and their revenues, and some $400 million it extracted from Mosul banks when it captured the city.
Savina Dawood, who represents A Demand for Action in Iraq, works among the refugees in the Kurdish city of Erbil, helping them find places to stay, medical care and supplies. When I reached her by phone there, she said the U.S. humanitarian relief to the Yazidis hasn’t noticeably relieved the Assyrian situation.
“This has had no impact,” she said. “People are still displaced, and they haven’t gone back to their homes.”
Dawood, 24, an Assyrian native of Erbil, has collected stories of extreme hardship. In the town of Singal, Iraq, she was told that ISIS took hundreds of women captive to serve as sex partners for the ISIS fighters. In Erbil, she met women whose husbands had been taken by ISIS weeks ago and have yet to be seen.
Meanwhile, Assyrian refugees crowd into churches, public parks and community buildings around Erbil and other larger towns — protected, for now, by the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
Dawood said she has no idea when, or if, they will ever be able to return to their homes.
I asked her if the Assyrians have received any help from the international community.
“The attention we’re getting internationally is only from our own people outside Iraq, not others,” she said, speaking of the Assyrian Christian diaspora. “ISIS is trying to force us out of our ancestral country because we are indigenous people, and we are Christians. But we are also human. So if people don’t care about Christians or indigenous people, fine, but can they help us as humans?”
Helping the non-Muslim minorities in Syria and Iraq and stopping ISIS will take long-term resolve. Kino and others say the best way to begin is to immediately establish a safe haven in northern Iraq’s Nineveh plains. United Nations forces, or other international security forces, can be deployed to protect them from attack.
The Assyrians want their safe haven to evolve eventually into an autonomous nation of their own, where they can protect themselves. A hundred years ago, at least 250,000 Assyrians were slaughtered in the genocide perpetrated by the Young Turks regime that decimated the Armenian population as well. Now, a hundred years later, they face a second round of extermination. Carving their own bit of land out of an oil-soaked swath of Kurdistan and Iraq with no army and no international support may be a distant dream.
In the meantime, what they most want, and need, is protection and assistance from an indifferent world.
“The international community must help us,” Dawood said. “Their silence means they are fine with it.”
Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.