Middle Eastern Christians Face Calamity

The Middle East is embroiled in chaos and what little remains of the ancient Christian communities there are being destroyed with the latest tragic turn of events in Iraq. The barbarism of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that began a military and terror campaign from Syria swept into Iraq to capture numerous towns and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city in June 2014 to practically erase the post-World War I border between Syria and Iraq. ISIS declared itself an Islamic State with its capital in Mosul and is now brutally cleansing its territory of Christians, a humanitarian horror and outrage that is largely ignored by Western countries, including the United States.

Western elites welcomed the “Arab spring” which began shaking the foundations of authoritarian political power throughout the Middle East in 2011 as heralding an era of democracy and freedoms in the region. A bitter paradox is that, contrary to Western hopes, the brutal and despicable authoritarian regimes of the past such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Hafez Assad’s in Syria provided more freedoms to Christian minorities than do the security environments in those countries today.

The fall of Mosul was a watershed event for imperiled Middle East Christians. In consolidating control of the city, ISIS in July issued demands to Christians read out in the city’s mosques to convert to Islam or pay taxes or “dhimma” to avoid being killed. One of the senior Christian leaders in Iraq reported that ISIS had been marking Christian homes with the letter “N” for “Nassarah,” a term used for Christians in the Koran. The terrorizing led to a mass exodus of Christians from Mosul to Kurdish controlled territory in Iraq, leaving Mosul vacant of Christians for the first time in Iraq’s history.

The Christian exodus from Iraq has been well underway since the 2003 war, but was accelerated with ISIS’s capture of Mosul. Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic population had been more than one million in 2003, had fell to about 450,000 due to discrimination and violence against Christians by both of Iraq’s Sunni and Shia Muslim sects. Mosul had about 60,000 Christians at the time of the 2003 war, but was less than 35,000 at the time of the ISIS capture of Mosul. Now the few Christians who remained are fleeing and ISIS is systematically destroying crosses, statues, and manuscripts, and thirty churches that Christians had to abandon in the city.

Western and American policy paralysis since 2011 contributed to ISIS’s violent rise in Syria and Iraq. President Obama played Hamlet over the policy option of recruiting, training, and arming politically moderate Syrian opposition forces to wage battles against Syrian Islamic militants like al-Qaeda and ISIS as well as against the repugnant Assad regime. The prospects of nurturing such an opposition in accord with Western and American interests were by no means assured, but the United States would have had to try to find out. Instead, the Obama administration vacillated and allowed ISIS to move out of Iraq and into Syria in 2011 and to grow to dominate Syria’s opposition forces. The emboldened ISIS then returned to Iraq this year to intimidate, coerce, and murder to instill so much fear in Iraq to compel the country’s numerically superior military forces to collapse and retreat to Baghdad. Iraq is now fractured into three de facto states—the Sunni Islamic State, the rump Shia Iraq state, and the Kurdish state—even though it is not polite to say so in policy, diplomatic, and military company.

The United States’ war in Iraq arguably ended in December 2011 when Iraq’s Shia dominated government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to sign a status of forces agreement to allow a continued American military presence in Iraq. The combat today in Iraq is largely sectarian violence between battling Shia and Sunni forces—with Christians fleeing the crossfire—backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia and Arab Gulf states, respectively. The United States does not have a national interest in having either of these sects prevailing in the conflict. If the Sunnis win, ISIS and Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi brand of militant Islam will dominate Iraq and the region. And if the Shia win, Iran and Hezbollah, Tehran’s proxy Shia militia in Lebanon, will have regional security sway.

Iran is fervently supporting the Iraq Shia rump government with military assistance.   Iran has dispatched a senior and capable Revolutionary Guard general to command about 120 advisors in Iraq and to direct Iraq’s Shia militias that are the bastions of support for the hemorrhaging Maliki government. At least two Iranian advisors have been killed in fighting. The Iranians also sent a handful of Russian-built combat aircraft to aid the besieged regime in Baghdad. The Russians also have sent combat aircraft to Iraq. Hezbollah too has sent fighters and advisors to buttress the regime in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has deployed about 700 Special Forces personnel to Iraq to assess Baghdad’s situation, but, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the United States is not coordinating its efforts with the Iranians or the Russians.

Saudi Arabia’s hand is supporting ISIS is more hidden. The Saudis and Arab Gulf states have funneled money and military aid to Syria’s militant Islamists because they despise the Assad regime. And the Gulf Arabs are delighted to see the Baghdad regime in danger because they see Maliki as an Iranian puppet. Informal public opinion polls, moreover, show that Saudi public support for ISIS runs very high. Even in an authoritarian monarchy such as Saudi Arabia, the royal family has to be sensitive to public opinion and to the Wahhabi religious establishment—whose militant interpretation of Islam is near that of ISIS—to ensure the kingdom’s political-Islamic legitimacy.

One would think that the United States would be leading international outrage against the persecution of the Christian communities in the Middle East, but such is not the case. President Obama’s key national security lieutenants—National Security Advisor Susan Rice and American ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power—are widely known as assertive advocates for “humanitarian intervention,” and yet both are largely mute about the onslaught on Christians in the Middle East. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounted in Duty that both Rice and Power, along with then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, influenced President Obama to militarily intervene in Libya in 2011 to oust Qaddafi (p. 511). They mistakenly judged that genocide was underway in Libya when it was a civil war with no American national interests at stake. Power, moreover, wrote movingly in her best selling book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide about the genocide of some one million Armenia Christians at the hands of the Turks in 1915.

Pope Francis stands nearly alone as a world leader to denounce the militant Islamic barbarism against Christians in the Middle East. The Holy Father in his Sunday Angelus on 21 July 2014 mourned the Christian flight from Mosul, “They are persecuted: our brothers are persecuted, they are driven out, they have to leave their houses without having the possibility of taking anything with them.” As the “leader of the free world,” President Barak Obama could at least lend his voice to the pope’s to increase international political pressure on regional states to discredit militant Islamic persecution of Middle East Christians, but he remains silent and indifferent.

The calamity of Christians in the Middle East is likely to tragically grow worse in the months ahead. Pope Francis during his May 2014 visit to Jordan praised King Abdullah II for his country’s efforts to promote religious tolerance. But Jordan’s tolerance of its Christian minority would disappear if ISIS were allowed to gain a foothold there. ISIS has already made moves in Iraq along Jordan’s border and would no doubt want to expand its influence into Jordan as well as into Lebanon.

Make no mistake, short of direct and substantial American military intervention on a scale of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there will be no means to repatriate and restore Iraq’s Christian community in the near term. But what the United States and the international community need to be planning for is the provision of limited military forces, especially air power, to establish safe havens for exiled Iraqi Christians. Humanitarian assistance could be distributed in safe havens in Kurdish controlled areas of Iraq and in Jordan to both protect and care for Christians but also to buttress the capacity of Jordan and Kurdistan to bludgeon future ISIS incursions.

Richard L. Russell


Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. A Catholic convert, Russell holds a Ph.D. in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and specializes in foreign policy and international security. He is the author of three books: Sharpening Strategic Intelligence (Cambridge University Press); Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East (Routledge); and, George F. Kennan’s Strategic Thought (Praeger). Follow him on Twitter @DrRLRussell.

  • mollysdad

    “”Make no mistake, short of direct and substantial American military
    intervention on a size of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there will be no
    means to repatriate and restore Iraq’s Christian community in the near
    term. But what the United States and the international community need to be
    planning for is the provision of limited military forces, especially air
    power, to establish safe havens for exiled Iraqi Christians.”

    I’m not sure that this will cut it. What is particularly frightening is that 92 per cent of the target group surveyed in Saudi Arabia believes that “IS conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”

    If this is the case, then direct and substantial military intervention with boots on the ground is inappropriate. Nothing short of a war of destruction will defeat ISIS: a campaign of strategic bombardment from the air, aimed at destroying the supporting society or terrifying the population into renouncing Islam.

    • fredx2

      And a campaign of strategic bombardment would fail, because there is no way to separate the terrorists from the rest of the Iraqis. So you would be killing both.

      • mollysdad

        Yes, I would, wouldn’t I. Pity really. Commence primary ignition, Lord Vader.

  • One way of dealing with this difficult is not with guns, but by playing up Islam’s tendencies toward sectarian divisions. It would be a miracle if ISIS could hold up against all this history and sociology:


  • Don

    While Pope Francis has made statements condemning the actions of ISIS, it doesn’t appear that he is doing much more. Should he not demand a meeting with Obama and other world leaders to step in and take more direct action to protect Christians? Should he not be urging the faithful to make such demands of their leaders? Would St. John Paul II have merely made speeches? The absence of strong ACTION from the Christian leader is very disheartening and a matter of broader concern.

    • BillinJax

      Agree. It is a shame that our shepherds here at home are so inept, afraid to open their mouths until they hear from Rome, and scared to death of offending the phony leader of the free world on the golf course or demonizing his opponents at fundraisers. They are quick of foot to invite the media’s messiah to dine with them or give him honorary degrees but extremely cautious to speak ill of him for fear of the power in his phone and pen to issue executive orders. Especially with the IRS and DOJ at his beacon call. The bishops, in unison, should be storming Washington unless they, like many of our allies, are convinced the last best hope for freedom loving people in the world died in 2008,

    • fredx2

      The problem the Pope faces is that any statement or actions he may take will be instantly twisted in the Islamic world as the Pope trying to lead an attack on Islam. This plays right into the hands of the terrorists, who have already said they will “conquer Rome”. They probably welcome any statement by the Pope in opposition.

      But I agree, one would think he could do more, and he may be on a more quiet level. Remember how he got Miriam Ibrahim out of Sudan? He said almost nothing publicly on the matter, yet was working on it.

      So once again , he has to walk a careful line. This does not apply so much to Obama, who 1) actually has a military and 2) is not a patently religious figure. 3) Who has an obligation to the Iraqi people, both Christian and Muslim. 4) Who must stand up as the voice of the free world that can actually bring force to bear.

      Yesterday the Pope did speak out, but did so in the context of calling for all wars to stop – Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, etc.

      • DE-173

        “The problem the Pope faces is that any statement or actions he may take will be instantly twisted in the Islamic world as the Pope trying to lead an attack on Islam. ”

        I guess such things appear much easier from the perspective of a Cardinal in South America.

      • Don

        Thanks fredx2. I appreciate the argument that the Pope needs to walk a careful line . . . but frankly, I must respectfully disagree. Walking a careful line will only get Christians killed and encourage more of it elsewhere. In my limited view, I truly believe bold action is now required. Catholic leadership has been shockingly absent and if the Shepards will not protect the flock by taking some risk, what hope can the flock reasonably hold on to? The very failure to challenge Islam on something so clear as life and death is what has empowered this evil to thrive. Surely the Pope would not want us to sit meekly if the Vatican were under such attacks because feared we would offend Islam by our opposition. How then can he simply wag his finger in the general direction of Islam for these horrible events? He is cutting the faithful adrift out of indifference or fear. Either way, his is failing in the most fundamental papal duty – protect the flock.

        • Kevin A

          Enacting full out war against ISIS would only assist ISIS in achieving that exact goal. If you are going to have faith in a particular religion and follow it, then you will be chained to its burdens.

  • cloonfush

    Expect nothing from the dark hearted monster in the White House. His objectives are not sympatico with with the traditional objectives of our American republic.

    • DE-173

      There’s a reason his approval remains at 70+% with Muslims.

  • fredx2

    No safe havens, no nothing from the White House. A few tepid condemnations, that’s all. No real outrage shown, more on the lines of “OK, I will make a statement if I have to”
    This is the great light-bringer? The moral giant of our time? The new Lincoln? The “greatest speaker of our age” will not even devote a single speech to the matter? The Nobel peace prize winner refuses to do much except shrug his shoulders?

    • DE-173

      “This is the great light-bringer?”

      Actually, he urged bringing a gun, but only against domestic political enemies.

      • BillinJax

        The terrorist jihad is a (religious) revolutionary movement and our president is an avowed revolutionist who believes in “getting into the face” of his enemies and creating havoc. Watching from the sideline he can take notes as the action evolves adding to his play book for radicals..

    • msmischief

      He didn’t even have to shrug to get the prize. Why bother?

  • la catholic state

    Sadly, the Pope does not mention ISIS for what they are…..Islamic terrorists. Is he afraid he will intensify the persecution?!

    The important question is…..if the US and UN fail to ensure a safe haven…..what will happen?! The Pope needs to accept the fact that they may not. And he, the Church and the world’s one billion Catholics need to step up…..and fund a Catholic corps and action to save beleaguered Christians. Surely we have Catholic military men who could advise. I know one just such!

  • Fred

    Not that their actions stirred any real surprise in me, but I still read with appall at our administration’s undercutting Israel in their latest battle to defend themselves. Is it almost like his approach with our southern border encouraging illegals to flood through open tunnels with many (not all certainly) openly bent on our destruction either directly, or indirectly through economic destruction. The anointed one’s fingerprints are on nearly every fire raging in the world. Much is written about motives which seem to become more crystal clear every day, a world view where America is the enemy. Oh the irony when the war to establish a caliphate on our shores arrives and all the folks who have no attachment to their ancestry who share this world view are forced to comply with sharia law. Where are all the celebs who cried so many tears for the genocide in Darfur? Has the prince of this world ascended, and is he laughing his fool head off in delight?

  • Watosh

    When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, German-Americans were subject to suspicion. If I recall American high schools stopped offering course in German. When Japan attacked the U.S. in 1941, we rounded up Japanese Americans and place them in special areas of containment.

    The point is to demonstrate that certain minorities that are suspected of connections with an enemy, come under suspicion when the country they reside in is attacked or threatened by a country that has some identification with the minority, and this is not a characteristic of Moslem countries only, but is a fairly common reaction. That is not to say it is justifiable, rather merely to indicate that it is common to many countries.

    Now when a Moslem country is attacked by a Western “Christian” country, it is not surprising to see them regard their Christian minority with distrust, and as potential enemy sympathizers. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, Iraq was thrown into turmoil. There was much suffering, and the Sunni’s suffered the most.The Christian Iraqi’s became a target for Iraqi’s Sunni’s in particular to vent their anger against. Again this was not justifiable but it happens so much it was predictable. (The number of cancers and birth defects to Sunni’s in Fallujah are off the charts caused some believe by the residue of the “depleted” Uranium used in American shells that were used.)

    Now while American troops were occupying Iraq, Christian Churches were bombed and Christian Iraqi’s were harassed. Some Americans on hearing this felt that American troops should give these Christian Iraqi’s some protection. Had American troops been detailed to provide protection for the Christian Iraqi’s, this would have been a kiss of death, because if the Sunni’s and Shiites did not trust the Christian Iraqi’s before, they would certainly regard them as enemies associated with the West if American troops who had invaded their country been giving them protection, That is to say, realistically we couldn’t protect them in actuality. So the same goes for those who would send in American troops now. It wouldn’t help unless the troops were their to arrange safe transpiration of Iraqi Christians to some other country. You simply can’t put broken eggs together.
    Now my wife was an Iraqi Catholic from around Mosul. Most all of her family has long since emigrated to the U.S. It is not pleasant for a Catholic living in a Moslem country, but it is much worse if that country is invaded by a Western country that the Moslems associate with any Christian religion. But we had to invade Iraq and ignore its territorial integrity because we had to get rid of all the WMD’s that we knew exactly where some of them were, but we couldn’t find any after we spent many months searching on the scene. Well that is the way it goes. fortunately we can blame the Moslems, it is all their doing, we weren’t responsible for Moslems killing Moslems or Christians after all, just like it is all Russia’s doing that is causing Ukrainian women and children to die from the Ukrainian government we helped install there.

    • cestusdei

      Nice job defending the terrorists and persecutors. Muslims always find excuses to attack Christians. They did long before there was a USA. they blame us for everything, even when they cause their own problems. We should have invaded them as we did Germany and Japan. Back then we eliminated the bad guys and imposed democracy whether they liked it or not.

      • Watosh

        Was I defending terrorists and persecutors? I thought I was merely reciting some historical events. I thought I was echoing the U.S. concern for the territorial integrity of nations. I thought the U.S. had invaded Iraq and forced a democracy on them whether they liked it or not. Now I realize that after we defeated Germany, actually largely with the help of the Soviet Union which was responsible for engaging and defeating 3/4 of the German Army itself, (Now I hope you don’t regard this statement of the undisputed facts as grounds for claiming that I am defending Soviet Russia and Communism) and defeating Japan we “eliminated the bad guys” except for the German scientists and intelligence types we invited to come and live in the U.S., and except for the Japanese head bad guy, Hirohito, after which Germany and Japan have successfully maintained what many consider a democratic government, at least they reflect all the trappings of a democracy. However Germany had a long history of voting for members of their government, and even Japan had a government that reflected democratic practices long before we invaded. So a democratic society was something they had had some experience with. They also had had a relatively homogenous population for a rather long time. I think this was more responsible for their acceptance of a democracy, than the fact we eliminated all the bad guys. That is a rather simplistic, but thoroughly American, way of interpreting events. Eliminate all the bad guys of the world and peace will come. Now there is some validity to this argument, we eliminated all the bad guys among the American native tribes, and now we enjoy peace with the Indians. Still, I don’t believe this is the path Christ wants us to follow.

        • cestusdei

          In effect you are. Tell me how the US influenced Islam to persecute Christians back in 900 AD? How are we to blame?

          We had no choice but to ally with the USSR. We then had a very long cold war that finally ended communism, thank God. We could have let those scientists go to the Soviet Union, gee what a great idea. We could have executed Hirohito. I suppose you support our executing every Muslim terrorist we catch. Sounds like a plan. It is consistent with what you say about WWII.

          Germany and Japan today are democracies. Thanks to US. That is the long and short of it. No Muslim nation is a democracy. When the do vote they vote the terrorists in, as in Gaza. Something is wrong with Islam and it ain’t US. Blaming US simply plays into their propaganda. It’s an Islamic way of interpreting events. “Oh we blew up those Christians, it’s their fault.”

          • Watosh

            well the Muslims are not the only ones to vote terrorists in, Israel voted two of terrorists, Menachim Begin and Yitzhak Shamir as Prime Ministers of Israel. I have heard that Israel has a program whereby students partial to Israel can earn trips and other benefits by patrolling blogs to present Israel’s propaganda. It would not surprise me. I do not like to encourage violence to anyone, and as a Catholic I am bound to regard the words of Christ, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I think Catholics particularly should try to live in accordance with thee words. but apparently many “Catholics” don’t heed these words, it is great sport to stir up trouble.

            • cestusdei

              So is Israel still attacking the English? Any bombings of London by Jews? No? Oh, but the Muslims did bomb London not so long ago.

              I am a Catholic and not a student. I receive no money for defending Israel. How much do you get from the Saudi’s?

              As a Catholic why do you not have any concern for the 3 Jewish children who were murdered by Hamas recently? That started the whole round of war. Killing Jewish children does stir up trouble because the Jews have decided that they are not going to take it anymore. Muslims don’t seem to get that. Muslims also don’t seem to get that Christians should have religious liberty and not be persecuted. As a Catholic you need to take that up with them.

              • Watosh

                Israeli sources now admit that Hamas was not responsible for killing the Jewish teen agers. But after the killings, Note that one day before the killings of the Isreali teen agers, which was a horrible deed, A Palestinian man and a 10 year old child were killed by an Israeli Air strike, and just before that IDF soldiers shot and killed to unarmed Palestinian teen agers which incident happened to be caught on a nearby surveillance camera. Israel responded to the murder of the Israeli teenagers by going on a rampage in the West Bank, invading homes, killing demonstrators, and arresting hundreds of Palestinians. Because three Isreali teen agers were murdered you say Israeli’s were not going to take it anymore, but how about the Palestinian children that have been murdered by Israeli, do you sympathize that the Palestinians are not going to take it anymore. Look at the statistics, the number of Palestinian children killed by Israeli military over the years dwarfs the number of Israeli children killed by the Palestinians.You don’t seem to be aware of this because of course our Israeli controlled press won’t print that. The Israeli’s have hundreds of Palestinian children in their prisons. They don’t kidnap Palestinian children, they merely arrest them, which sanitizes their kidnappings for Western consumption. If you aren’t getting money from Israel, then you should. As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, they have lately been working in concert with Isreal in fomenting chaos in Syria, The money grubbing Saudi’s don’t care about the Palestinians really. The Saudis are our friends, and we don’t support the Palestinians (i know we provide money so the Palestiniain Authority on the West Bank will act as guards for Israel, and enable Israel to avoid their obligations as an occupying power, to the Palestinians .) Yes the Saudi’s are our friends and I recall George Bush walking hand in hand with a visiting Saudi Prince a few hers ago, that was before 19 hi jackers, 15 of them rom Saudi Arabia, then flew planes into the twin towers and the Pentagon. I don’t think the Saudi’s would want to encourage me monetarily, why would you try to tag me with them? . But nice try. I would like to know why all the Saudi’s were allowed to get in a plane and return to Saudi Arabia when there was a stand down in effect after 9/11.

                • cestusdei

                  So who killed them? Muslims or Amish? Take a guess. Not long ago Muslim terrorists butchered Jewish children in their own home. I didn’t notice you protesting that. Muslim children are taught from day one to hate Jews and Christians. When I visited the West Bank the Christians told me that they were more oppressed by Muslims then Jews, but they couldn’t say it publicly out of fear. If Muslims want the war to stop it would be easy. Stop trying to destroy Israel and kill all the Jews. Simple.

                  The Saudi’s, to whom Obama bowed, support Islamic terrorism around the world. Join me in opposing Muslim terrorism and persecutions rather then attack the only democracy in the middle east. You in fact echo the Saudi anti-Semitic propaganda.

                  I support Israel not for money, but because it is the only place where my faith is not persecuted in the middle east. No Jew has ever tried to hurt me. But Muslims have tried to kill me. Muslims routinely and on purpose target children and use their own as human shields, you are helping them. I am sure they appreciate it. Dhimmitude is not going to be my choice.

  • Maria Gabriela Salvarrey Rodri

    Israel is doing what this suggests at least to the extent of “buttress the capacity of Jordan and Kurdistan to bludgeon future ISIS incursions”. The time has come for us to join with our older brothers so as to fight a common enemy that would eliminate both jews and christians from existance if allowed. Wake up christians.

  • fahamjp@hotmail.com

    An excellent and insightful article by Mr. Russell. It is true that Iraq has essentially fractured into 3 nations, but the borders are shifting and have not been finalized. There are many Assyrian Chaldean Christian groups who are proposing a 4th nation or an autonomous province within Kurdistan. This would be an Assyrian Chaldean Christian nation in the Nineveh plains which is the region east of Mosul and the Tigris River and bordered by the Zab River. This is the traditional homeland for Iraq Christians. At this time the Kurdish military (the Peshmerga) are in a standoff with ISIS just outside of Mosul in this region and also further south in Kirkuk. Americans have no appetite for a another full scale invasion of Iraq and to do so would be political suicide for either political party. However, it is possible for the US government to play a limited role in defining and initially defending the new borders of an independent Kurdistan and independent Assyrian Chaldean Christian nation. The US can assist in relocating Christians and Kurds to their homeland. There are very few Sunni or Shiite Arabs living in these regions so security within the borders would not be an issue once the borders are finalized and defensible.