Landing Zone (LZ), Mosul Presidential Site or 'Palace of Swords', Mosul, northern Iraq - Image courtesy of James Gordon (http://bit.ly/Use9XX)

Landing Zone (LZ), Mosul Presidential Site or ‘Palace of Swords’, Mosul, northern Iraq – Image courtesy of James Gordon (http://bit.ly/Use9XX)

An international crisis was created after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) told Christians in Northern Iraq to leave the region or risk death. Hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled their homes, sparking criticism and concern from Westerners. Reports surfaced that many Christian homes in the region were being marked with the Arabic letter “N,” which stands for “Nazarene” or “Christian,” as a way to target those residents.

But Jeremy Courtney, an American living in an undisclosed location in Iraq who started the popular #WeAreN hashtag, says the media isn’t telling the whole story. Courtney is the founder of Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that provides life-saving heart surgeries for children in Iraq, and author of Preemptive Love: Pursuing Peace One Heart at a TimeHere, we discuss what he’s experiencing in Iraq, what the media misses, and who he thinks should be blamed for the crisis.

RNS: You say the American media isn’t reporting the whole story about Christian persecution in Iraq. What are we missing?

JC: What Americans don’t quite understand is that what we call the “Christian community” in Iraq has strong nationalistic aspirations. The American media often assumes this ancient Christian community is evangelistically vibrant and is being persecuted because they are trying to convert Muslims. But this is false.

Image courtesy of Howard Books

Image courtesy of Howard Books

RNS: What is the importance of Iraqi Christians’ “nationalistic aspirations?”

JC: One way the new Islamic state and the neighboring legitimate Kurdistan regional government could perceive the Christian community as a threat is that the Assyrian Christian community longs to see an Assyrian state rise again. There are strong nationalist desires, and many want a federal solution to carve out an Assyrian state. Some would say that’s why the Kurds have all too cynically welcomed the fleeing Christians–because they can Kurdify them.

This doesn’t mean that the persecution is justified. They shouldn’t be subject to genocide. They shouldn’t lose their homes. But Western Christians want to view these issues only through Christian evangelism, while overlooking Christian nationalism, Christian politics, and Christian violence abroad—all of which are real things.

RNS: So why are these Iraqi Christians being persecuted then?

JC: They are being persecuted because they are considered to be deviants by Islamist militants. So they can either pay a tax to acknowledge Islam’s dominance over them, be killed, convert, or leave so they are no longer a threat. They are being targeted because of their faith, but it is not because of their evangelical witness. These historic Christian communities are not deeply engaged in what most Americans call “evangelism” of Muslims or Christian activism. It is Christians' mere presence that is threatening to Islamist militants.

RNS: Why is this a significant point for Americans to consider?

JC: When Americans only defend the oppressed when they think they share their theology, that’s a problem. When they only defend those they consider their brothers and sisters, that’s a problem.

When ISIS first came into Mosul and 500,000 people fled the city, the majority of those were Sunni Muslims. It seems they left because they were not fundamentalists deemed to be compliant enough with this new Islamic authority. Why didn’t Americans get up in arms when Muslims were being driven from their homes? Why didn’t we change our twitter icons when Muslims were being slaughtered? We should be equally worked up about other minorities here who are suffering.  We can't only have compassion on people that we think are like us.

RNS: How did the fatwa against these Christians come about?

JC: From what I understand, there was a meeting to be held last week and Islamist militants summoned the Christian leadership. The Christian leaders presumably feared what would happen in that meeting, so they did not show up. They were then apparently ruled to be in breach of the new Islamic state’s rules, and the fatwa was issued. This may have been what they were going to be told at the meeting anyway.

Jeremy created a wave of interest online with a tweet featuring this image and the #WeAreN hashtag.

Jeremy created a wave of interest online with a tweet featuring this image and the #WeAreN hashtag.

RNS: You started the #WeAreN hashtag. Has raising awareness made a difference? 

JC: I don’t know that it has done anything except make people feel like they are doing something when they are doing nothing at all. Until this energy translates into real dollars, until it reaches the White House and major religious denominations, until it changes the way we engage in the Middle East, until it makes a difference in the lives of my friends on the ground, I’m not all that interested in measuring that.

RNS: How has this situation affected your organization’s work, if at all?

JC: ISIS has driven us out of two areas, preventing children from getting needed surgeries. We’ve found an influx of children from all over the country into the other areas where we are still operating. This has put some stress on the system and on us. We’ve put out an urgent appeal for additional funds.

RNS: Some American evangelical leaders have blamed Obama’s withdrawal for this. But shouldn’t evangelicals also share the blame since they supported the policies that led to invasion and occupation?

JC: There’s plenty of blame to go around. Anyone who boils down Iraq's situation down to one thing is playing politics or willfully ignorant. This is a mess, and it is everyone’s fault. American evangelicals absolutely share the blame for the Christian persecution in Iraq. That is a hard pill to swallow, but we have to come to terms with it. They have to begin rethinking their knee-jerk reaction to the world’s violence and always meeting violence with more violence.

46 Comments

  1. “Some would say that’s why the Kurds have all too cynically welcomed the fleeing Christians–because they can Kurdify them.”

    This part makes very little sense.

    Kurds are an ethnic group not a specific religious sect like the Sunnis, Shia or Christians. The Kurds have also been on the receiving end of ethnic cleansing for the better part of 2 decades under Hussein. Far worse than the Iraqi Christians faced prior to ISIS. The Kurdish regions have been welcoming Christian refugees from Iraq and Syria for some time and their government has made efforts to safeguard them. It appears the Kurdish offers of sanctuary are probably genuine.

    Also it helps that the Kurdish militia has so far been the only military force which has held ISIS in check and not taken liberties with the populations (unlike the Shia).

    “The American media often assumes this ancient Christian community is evangelistically vibrant and are being persecuted because they are trying to convert Muslims. But this is false.”

    I don’t think ANYONE has been making these claims in American news media.

    • The world should be thanking the Kurds for how they protected the Assyrian Christian community and allowed them to seek refuge in their region (also the historical native land of Assyrians). The Sunni Arabs are the cowards to blame here, as they failed to defend the Christians against ISIS in favor of their own agenda against the Shia government.

      • William Warda

        Kurd historically have been the cruelest persecutors of the Christian Assyrians. During World War One 750.000 christian Assyrians and Armenians were massacred by the Kurds and Turks. Only in recent years Kurds have learned to fool the Christians of the West by some times helping them to ffool countries like the United States to help them expand their military power in Iraq but at the same time they continue to confiscate the Assyrian villages lin the Plain of Nineveh which historically has been the homeland of the Assyrians. So don’t be fooled by appearance because in the Middle East often evil lurks behind what you see as act of kindness. Here is an example of it. With the help of the U.S. Kurds will continue to expand their rule over the entire northern Iraq and dominate its oil resources at the expense of the Christian Assyrians and other persecuted northern Iraq minorities
        http://www.atour.com/news/assyria/20121001a.html

    • It makes a lot of sense.

      The reason Assyrians are in this predicament in the first place is exactly because of Kurds. They have been committing massacres and land theft against Assyrians for over 200 years now. The earliest recorded account was the massacre by Badr Khan, followed by the Diyarbakir Massacre, Adana Massacre, Armenian/Assyrian/Greek Genocide, and the land theft policies and Kurdification of minorities within Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s the same thing as Arabization. The government slowly forces another culture upon these people.

      Kurds are largely Muslim. The only non-Muslim Kurds are Yezidi’s and they don’t refer to themselves as Kurds. Look up Dohuk Riots of 2011 to see how Kurds attacked Assyrians and Yezidi’s.

      The only reason Kurds are “helping” Assyrians is because if Assyrians(the only indigenous people of the region) are under them, they have the right to claim more land.

      • thank you for this! that was a key gap in mr. courtney’s assessment of the situation.

        assyrians are not being attacked now because of the demand for an autonomous region. assyrians are demanding an autonomous region because of attacks which have intensified over the last two centuries. assyrians are indigenous to northwest iran, southeast turkey and northern iraq, and have been systematically targeted for persecution and genocide, and falsely identified as arab christians (assyrians are not ethnically arab) in an effort to ethnically cleanse the region. assyrians have experienced this type of persecution for centuries, and demanded an autonomous region when the british called on them to serve as allies in WWI. the british did not fulfill that bargain, and so when saddam was overthrown the leaders assumed the worst and heightened demands for autonomy in a land that is rightfully assyrian. it’s not like assyrians are asking for a patch of self-governed land in russia or bolivia.

        to say that ISIS is targeting assyrians because of the demand for self-governance is highly misinformed. assyrians demand self-governance and the right to self-defense because of centuries of experience with extremist violence and murder.

        while i appreciate the perspective of someone living in iraq, at the end of the day he is a westerner, which makes him an outsider with second-hand experience. please talk to an assyrian from iraq, who has intimate knowledge of what it means to be an ethnic and religious minority, raised in a persecuted and oppressed people group.

    • Larry, It seems to me that you lack the facts about Iraq and Kurds. Your statements are contrary to the facts. You state that, quote: “the Kurds have also been on the receiving end of ethnic cleansing for the better part of 2 decades under Hussein. Far worse than the Iraqi Christians faced prior to ISIS.” unquote. Wow. Really? The Assyrian Christians in Iraq have been persecuted since World War I in Iraq region. In 1933, some 3,000 Assyrians were massacred by the Iraqi Army aided by these same Kurds. Then you state that the Kurds are the only side that have stopped ISIS. Well, you should better say America and Israel have stopped ISIS where they want to stop them. Kurds are empowered by Washington and are protected. Lastly but not least, these same Kurds and Turks were behind the genocide of Assyrians during World War I where over 750,000 Assyrians lost their lives. We need to know the facts before we make our statements.

      • I did some research on the Iraqi “christians” and found that they are not “Christians” but simply a religious minority. The Yadisis don’t believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Most are a mixture of beliefs, certainly not trusting in the Son of God for their salvation. The closest are those who are of the Roman Catholic background, trusting in the Pope more than Jesus. Their eyes have not been opened by the Holy Spirit. However, the author of this article makes the point we should take to heart, these need our help because they are being slaughtered for NOT believing in Islam. and we should be in prayer for all of them. That God open their eyes to the truth of Jesus Christ.

        • The Little Flower

          The Roman Catholic Church is about Jesus Christ. The Pope is the head of the Church on earth as Christ’s Vicar. The Pope is always subordinate to Jesus Christ and Catholics know this to be true. Jesus established His Church on the rock(St. Peter, 1st Pope) and this is confirmed in Scripture and confirmed by the Church Fathers. If Jesus just established His Church on the rock of St. Peter, how is it that both Luther and Calvin claimed that Christ establishing an authority on earth, which is a reflection of the authority of Jesus Christ, the King of Kings in Heaven, is false? Any Christian who accepts the teachings of Luther or Calvin has accepted the authority of Luther or Calvin but not Jesus Christ through St. Peter(and all other Popes after him) and the other apostles(and all the other bishops after them). Jesus Christ did not establish Luther or Calvin to speak against what He instituted. Jesus Christ established His Church by the power of the Holy Spirit through the apostles(and the successors to those apostles- the Magisterium). If. Jesus Christ established His Church through each individual believer, there will conflicting views about what Jesus taught. However, since Christ established the Church through the Holy Spirit and through the apostles, Jesus gave us an outside objective authority to go to to determine what Jesus taught His apostles. Without the Church(Pope and Bishops), there would have been no way of determining which books of the Bible are accepted or not. If Luther and Calvin were advocating for what is the Truth, there would not be thousands of different Protestant denominations, each claiming to be the Truth. Would Jesus establish His authority on individual believers or would He establish it upon those who were actually present with Him and those who succeeded those who were present with Jesus? The eyes of the Catholics are open to the truth of Jesus Christ, but yours are not. At the end of the day, God bless all those who are suffering for the sake of the Faith.

    • Larry, I am an Assyrian Christian from Iraq. The Kurds have big part in this, you think the Kurds wants an Assyrian State? Of course not, they don’t want to lose territory to the Assyrians. If Kurds are so good, why have hounder of thousands of Assyrian left the Kurdish region since the Kurds took control of that area. I have been to northern Iraq 3 times in past 5 years I have seen fist hand of the treatment of Assyrian Christian. The Kurds are Muslims and mostly Suni. Kurds have done what Saddam was doing, ethnic cleansing of Assyrians but in quite ways. You can be Christian, but you have to say Kurd and live Kurdistan, but you can’t be Assyrian in Kurdistan.
      During Saddam regime Assyrian were forced to identify themselves as Arabs or Kurds, they were not allowed to identify themselves as Assyrian. Assyrians which are the indigenous people of Iraq.

    • I thought of that as American Evangelicals were very supportive of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. That set all of the present mess in motion.
      [Of course it ignores what Hussein did to the Christians prior to the invasion]

    • William Warda

      American invasion of Iraq was a disaster for the Christians of that country because the Islamist equated the local Christians with the foreign invaders and persecuted them in retaliation. The Evangelists contributed to the killing the Christians by publicly proclaiming that they had come to convert Muslims into Christianity which is considered as a deadly crime against their religion.

  2. Christians DO care about those who are oppressed when the people in question are another group, but that isn’t solidarity. What is being expressed, in this case, is solidarity.

  3. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Most of the Christians being terrorized, killed, persecuted by Moslems are native Christians who are in churches in communion with Rome. These communities go back almost 2 millennia in this region–and existed there long before being conquered by Arab Moslems.
    This article is typical of the way some Christians stab their own in the back.
    There is no way ever for justifying any religion to say to members of another religion: convert or die–as this article horrendously smacks of trying to justify. The evil way native Christians are being treated is all across wherever there are Moslems. Miream Ibrahim knows. The monks driven from their more than 1600 year old monastery in Mosul know. The girls kidnapped in Nigeria know.

  4. Can’t begin to sort this out; but I suspect our complainant is better suited to his medical mission than commenting on the tangled threads of Assyrian theology of any stripe. As an Evangelical let me state that I was absolutely opposed to the war in Iraq; wrong war, wrong time, wrong reasons.

  5. My heart breaks for those living under the terror of ISIS. Here’s a petition I created on the White House website calling on the Administration to speak out about what the UN is describing at crimes against humanity. https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/condemn-gross-human-rights-violations-iraq-some-which-may-amount-war-crimes-and-crimes-against/JN49VxvM

  6. share the blame?..not much i can do but pray..the merican communist propoganda media will only go so far on this type of topic as christians are involved..now if the mooslim ISIS terrorist would leave a camel in a car you can bet this would be national headlines. (or the izzys actually fighting and not laying down as another example)..mocha messiah has no use for these poor christians in regards to his personal cause and so it will generate little to no press…

  7. “The “Christian community” in Iraq has strong nationalistic aspirations” is a wrong generalization. There is not just one Christian community in Iraq, not all Iraqi Christians have nationalistic aspirations, Assyrian and Assyro-Chaldean nationalism inspires different political organizations and different political programs, not all Assyrians – let alone Chaldeans, Syriac Catholics, Syriac Orthodox – dream of or ask a (semi-)independent Christian district. Christian identity in Iraq is as various and multi-layered as everywhere in the world and encompasses various confessions, denominations, religious, cultural and political loyalties and ambitions. Many of the Christians driven from their homes and persecuted probably just feel Iraqi, despair about survival, long for peaceful and respectful relationships with their Christian, Muslim, Yazidi or whatever neighbors and have no other nationalistic aspirations.

  8. Thanks for sharing this.

    Didn’t think it was harsh or things I had not heard before regarding this issue or Islamic teachings––I live in Palestine for 3 months (you have good points on humankind and ludicrous ones with no backing).

    Say-for-instance, the bloodshed of human life, should move humankind period, agreed, but since you do not know all Christians, you cannot say Christians did nothing. Another point you brought up, the presence of Christians being a threat is not, and should not, be news to anyone, most who know Islamic teachings know that evangelism is not the highest reason for persecution, but simply not being a muslim in a place where the law says you should be, is.

    Moreover, anyone who is not a muslim is an infidel and should be taxed, converted, forced to flee, or killed––which is grievous to be killed for who you are see lynching is America, holocaust, apartheid, cast system in India, Tutsi and Hutu war.

    The article took a subjective ludicrous journalistic turn when you said “American evangelicals absolutely share the blame for the Christian persecution in Iraq.” That it is an all-inclusive statement that ties all Christians back to Obama going in and pulling out of the area, so all Christians supported Obama, haha come on with the sweeping brush. To journalistically sweep all American Christians under the bus is beyond subjective opinion, it discredits your words that have value.

    Human slaughter is never right, no one is arguing over why Christians are being slaughtered, we care that they are being slaughtered, anyone who is killed, Christian or not, shares the imago dei––image of god, on them; death of the individual should grieve all of humanity.

  9. A concerning misrepresentation of our beloved brothers and sisters in Christ who are in the midst of incomprehensible heart-wrenching persecution & suffering!
    What is ‘false’ are your sweeping statements and generalizations on what American evangelicals and Assyrian Christians believe. As an American evangelical who happens to have many Assyrian friends I can say that they are our oppressed brothers & sisters in Christ who have been persecuted for their faith in Jesus Christ for generations. Many are just happy to be living in the West where they can freely practice their faith without fear or death threats. Jeremy, it appears that this article has been written in a wrong spirit and you need to seriously rethink what your true motives are. May Christ forgive you and give you a heart of compassion. To Christ, it doesn’t matter what ‘works’ you are doing in Iraq if you are not doing it out of LOVE.

  10. The mainstream media increasingly seems to be avoiding any mention of the “C” word in its reporting of the ISIL religious rampage in northern Iraq.

    I mean this as no disrespect to the Yazides, but the persecution of non Muslims seems to have become all about them in terms of western media reporting.Not surprising though, given the media’s general disdain for Christianity, highly disappointing though. Do they thnk it will incite hatred of Muslims in the West?. Hardly. These ISIL Muslims are not typical of their religion, but a murderous stain on it.

    So the media should tell the whole story and not apparently shun the Christian suffering because this religion doesn’t share its liberal agenda.

  11. Mark Arabo is currently pressing Congress to pass the Nineveh Plain Refugee Act or HB 5430. This was legislation that he crafted with Congressman Juan Vargas. Mark continues his work as a humanitarian, and community activist, despite calls for him to run for public office. To support HB 5430 please visit http://minorityhf.org
    To find out more information about the progress please visit:
    http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/nov/23/tp-voices-in-the-immigration-debate/
    http://online.wsj.com/articles/iraqi-catholic-church-suspends-nine-american-priests-for-leaving-posts-1414189272
    http://www.sandiego6.com/news/local/Local-Chaldean-family-says-they-are-relieved-at-President-Obamas-action-on-immigration-283446681.html

  12. From a Catholic Christian perspective paying the tax is tantamount to placing the Prophet before God, I am not sure that a Muslim would be allowed to do that either. That may be why in general they preferred to leave.

  1. […] JC: They are being persecuted because they are considered to be deviants by Islamist militants. So they can either pay a tax to acknowledge Islam’s dominance over them, be killed, convert, or leave so they are no longer a threat. They are being targeted because of their faith, but it is not because of their evangelical witness. These historic Christian communities are not deeply engaged in what most Americans call “evangelism” of Muslims or Christian activism. It is Christians’ mere presence that is threatening to Islamist militants.  […]

  2. […] JC: They are being persecuted because they are considered to be deviants by Islamist militants. So they can either pay a tax to acknowledge Islam’s dominance over them, be killed, convert, or leave so they are no longer a threat. They are being targeted because of their faith, but it is not because of their evangelical witness. These historic Christian communities are not deeply engaged in what most Americans call “evangelism” of Muslims or Christian activism. It is Christians’ mere presence that is threatening to Islamist militants.  […]

  3. […] Grossman also notes something else in her article, almost in passing: “Jeremy Courtney, who says he launched #WeAreN, told RNS senior columnist Jonathan Merritt that global media — including social media — are […]

  4. […] What the Media Misses about Iraqi Christian Persecution:  This doesn’t mean that the persecution is justified. They shouldn’t be subject to genocide. They shouldn’t lose their homes. But Western Christians want to view these issues only through Christian evangelism, while overlooking Christian nationalism, Christian politics, and Christian violence abroad—all of which are real things. (Religion News) […]

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