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 Time. Here, 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.
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.
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.