Why the Loss of Christians Is So Tragic for Iraq

The Christians who are being driven out of Iraq are taking with them a unique theological concept that could help heal the suffering country.

We said “never again” when the Jews were exterminated in the Holocaust. We said “never again” when Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons and mass executions against Kurdish and Shia Iraqis. We said “never again” after the Rwandan Genocide.

Yet here we are. The self-styled “Islamic State” gave Christians in Mosul, Iraq, a Saturday, high-noon deadline to: 1. Convert to Islam; 2. Pay a “submission” tax to the Islamic State; or 3. “Face the sword.”

Homes of some Christians have been marked in red paint with the letter “N” (Nazarene) for extermination or expropriation. Church buildings are being destroyed alongside the desecration of crosses and icons. It has been reported that Mosul is now emptied of Christians for the first time in some 1,800 years.

But few can appreciate the massive void that will be left in Iraq when lives lived according to historic Christian theology go extinct.

To be sure, Christianity and its cousins have been the ostensible source of great evils in the world. But creedal Christianity, for all its problems and misappropriations, still offers something unique and powerful among world religions. Namely, it offers a scapegoat who is one of us and one with God.

The extermination of Christians will lead to far greater losses than any United Nations resolution can grasp.

The Iraq War in 2003 had the potential to right historic wrongs, and it may have been doing just that until the American backing of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for his highly controversial second term in 2010. As Maliki became increasingly intransigent, he alienated and began targeting many of Iraq’s Sunnis, treating them with suspicion while building a sectarian national defense force and consolidating cabinet powers unto himself. By the end of 2013, Sunni tolerance for Baghdad’s oppressive and discriminatory policies had reached its limits.

Fast-forward to June 9, and a cadre of Sunni militants had organized under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and overran the city of Mosul, driving out the predominately Shia Iraqi Security Forces. ISIS quickly earned the tentative trust of locals who had often felt unduly oppressed by Maliki’s military. But after committing heinous war crimes and mass executions in Mosul, Tikrit, and beyond, ISIS went on to declare a new “Islamic State” and implemented some of the strictest interpretations of Islam in history.

And here’s where the extermination of Christians will lead to far greater losses than any United Nations resolution can grasp.

Christianity has offered the people of Iraq a potent alternative to retaliation and silent suffering.

The pain of political oppression, social ostracism, and economic hardship needs an outlet. Pain is energy and it must go somewhere. Our inclination is toward retribution. We naturally project the pain we’ve felt onto others. Without a place for pain to go, it pools and hides monsters beneath the surface.

For a millennium, Christianity has offered the people of Iraq a potent alternative to retaliation and silent suffering. Generations of Christian Iraqis have loved their enemies and placed their pain on Jesus of Nazareth. That’s historic Christianity’s unique offering: someone on whom to cast all our pain as he bears it to the cross and dies outside the city gates for the wrong we’ve done and the wrongs done against us.

That Christian distinctive is about to be destroyed in Iraq.

The agnostic institutions to whom we’ve handed over the fate of the world have always failed to understand that wherever religion is the problem, religion is also the solution. More precisely, doctrine — the things we believe about God — is the problem, and better doctrine is also the solution. Neither official diplomats nor military might can satisfactorily solve problems that are essentially doctrinal disputes.

For Christians who believe the punishment for evil has already been placed on Jesus by the Divine Judge, an attacking enemy can be seen as one whose sins have already been forgiven. Life can still be transformed. Wherever I can let Jesus take the blows of injustice, I don’t become personally vindictive. I don’t repay evil with evil; I don’t take justice into my own hands.

So Iraq, as a nation, is about to lose more than its Christians — more than their culture, ancient sites, and history. For as terrible as the loss of life has been and may be yet, Iraq is also on the verge of losing Jesus — the most powerful scapegoat it could ever have.

If the “Islamic State” is effective in its genocide against Christians, Jesus will disappear from Iraq, and we will be left with only ourselves to blame.

Jeremy Courtney
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  • tanyam

    So what the author think is the solution — another invasion by the US military?– or some other army to come in and set things right? I’m not sure who “ourselves” — those we have to blame, -is, -those of us who wouldn’t advocate more military solutions? Is “ourselves” the Americans who supported Maliki in the second election? This article didn’t appear in Foreign Affairs, it appears in “On Faith,” so once again, I’d like to understand not only who is to blame among us, but what the solution is he is asking for from people of faith. .
    More importantly, I think he’s missing significant parts of the Christian story. The vulnerability of Jesus allowed for him to be eliminated. And yet that wasn’t the end. God did something else. It wasn’t because his followers decided to stop his crucifixion by military means that good was won. I think the Christian story does hold possibilities for healing — but I actually have enough faith in God to think that its power isn’t dependent on “ourselves.”
    I’m afraid the author’s thinking is what led to the problems in the first place. Human beings deciding that if only they could force outcomes, by violence, surely they could make things better. Look at what that has wrought, — not merely in Iraq, but across the Middle East.

  • Martin Hughes

    Well, if military might is not the solution, but more religion is, then we must keep offering to discuss our ideas and doctrines and exercising the virtues of faith and hope.

  • David Loving

    I would commend Philip Jenkins’ excellent book _The Lost History of Christianity_ to anyone interested in the Iraqi Christians. Baghdad is one of the most important cities in Christian history with an importance rivaling Rome or Constantinople — yet sadly in decline for the last several hundred years. I pray for peace for our brothers and sisters there–that their lives will be spared, that the persecution will ease, that their faith will remain strong. If this outpost of our faith is allowed to vanish completely, we lose an inestimable piece of Christian history and tradition, of who we are as a people, and we are all impoverished.