“So right now you have a very small, faint candle flicker of a light that is our people. And for every church that is blown up, every town that is emptied of indigenous Assyrian Christians, you are one step closer, one flicker of the wind closer to that little, faint flame being extinguished, and us not existing anymore.”– Wisam Naoum
Naoum is a young second or third generation Iraqi Christian who was born and raised in Michigan and now practices law in Chicago. He is a staunch activist for his people back in Iraq.
Both Chicago and Detroit have very big Iraqi Christian communities and are part of a diaspora that is now bigger than the Christian communities left in Iraq. This is due to the decades of emigration of Christians from Iraq that was accelerated by the 2003 American-led war as well as the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL).
For this community, the last number of years have been especially dramatic and tragic. “It’s like watching your people bleed to death,” said Noor Matti, commenting on what it was like to see 125,000 Christians flee the Ninveh plains from an ISIS invasion in the summer of 2014.
Matti is in early thirties. He grew up in Detroit Michigan, earned a B.A. and then decided that his way of helping his people was to return to the place where his roots lay, northern Iraq. When ISIS invaded Mosul and the Ninveh Plains and a large part of the Christian community fled to nearby Kurdistan, Matti found himself caring for his people day and night. They slept in his office, on the streets and in various other places in Kurdistan.
When I spoke with him then, Matti remarked on how the Iraqi Christian cultural identity was disappearing through emigration and persecution and that the world seemed to be taking a blind eye.
Matti and Naoum are two examples of people Clarion interviewed for our upcoming movie Faithkeepers. Both allowed us a glimpse into what the Iraqi Christian community is going through.
In the movie, we also took a look at the Iraqi Christian diaspora as it is searching for what to do as their community in Iraq is experiencing a physical and cultural genocide. In addition, the second and third generation in the diaspora is defining their identity as they grow up having never seen their homeland and with little prospects of ever doing so. We follow them as they are figure out how to relate and communicate to a world that seems all too complacent that their community being destroyed.
It is very clear, whether the U.S. government wants to admit it or not, that Iraqi Christians, as with other minorities in Iraq, are experiencing genocide. Their numbers have been depleted from 1.4 million to 200,000-400,00. Most of their ancient towns in the Ninveh plains have been emptied. Christians that have stayed have been either forcefully converted, pay jisya (an Islamic protection tax) and/or have been killed.
The Islamic State has made it abundantly clear that they intend to kill or force out Christians from Iraq as they attempt to create their vision of a caliphate. Many of the victims of this onslaught have made it to North America with stories of rape, kidnapping, robbery and subjugation. Many of these stories will appear in Faithkeepers.
We conducted a number of interviews in a school in Michigan called INVEST, where 85% of the students are immigrants or from immigrant families. High school students wearing t-shirts and jeans and just trying to go to school like anyone else told us of the horrors of living in Iraq and their near-death experiences of fleeing ISIS.
In addition to the physical destruction of the community, there is also a loss of identity and culture when a community is forced from the place it calls home. The Iraqi Christian community is made up some of the oldest Christian denominations (Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean and Armenian) and still speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It is the inheritor of some of the world’s oldest civilizations (Ancient Assyria and Babylonia) and carries with it a specific style of art, dance and food.
With the destruction of those communities, a part of ancient heritage is lost both to them and the world. As Amal Marogy, a Chaldean-British linguist and former professor at Cambridge, commented, “The church from the third century in my village does not belong to me or to my village. It belongs to the whole world.”
The community is somewhat divided on what should be done in the face of its physical and cultural destruction: There are those who argue for a wholesale airlift of the remaining Christians to Europe or America. But there are others who feel that the only way for their people to survive is to stay in Iraq, and that the diaspora needs to invest in creating a safe haven in the Nineveh plains with a police or protective force made up of Christians and other minorities.
Of the internally displaced people we spoke to in Iraq, almost all of them wanted to stay. A number of political factions and NGOs have committed themselves to actualizing the dream of having some sort of independent enclave for minorities in Iraq.
In the diaspora community, as the second and third generation grows up in America without ever having seen Iraq or speaking Aramaic, the question of identity becomes essential and as well as existential: What does it mean to be an Iraqi Christian, or an Assyrian, Chaldean?
To many the church has become the core of their identity. Iraqi Christians are a community that carries with it ancient customs and prayers. It is a community that has kept its faith despite a long history of persecution and attempted forced conversions to Islam.
In the words of one Iraqi Christian woman who was kidnapped, raped and refused to convert to Islam, “All I wanted to do is to die a Christian.”
To others, their identity is defined by remaining connected to their language, culture and history. Evette Shahara is an idealistic linguist in her late 20s who co-founded, together with several other college friends, an organization called E’rootha (awakening). She is adamant that identity goes beyond the church and that Iraqi Christian history, culture and language must be preserved as well.
Shahara created a college-level Aramaic course in her university to teach her community their historic language. Instruction in Assyrian dance was also offered, and an annual “Night of the Arts” takes place where Assyrian artists and musicians display their work.
E’rootha is not the only Iraqi Christian youth group. A whole range of Iraqi Christian campus groups have been created to help form a cohesive community.
In addition, Keys Grace, an elementary charter school in Madison Heights, MI, became the first public school in the U.S. to be allowed to teach modern Aramaic alongside English and teach Iraqi Christian history and culture classes.
Despite all these efforts, it remains to be seen if the next generations of Iraqi Christians will preserve their identity in the diaspora. Will they hold on to their customs and language? Will they remain connected to their land? Regardless of their future success, it is clear that current efforts by Iraqi Christians to maintain their identity and their faith are not only a matter of survival, they are acts of defiance – a way of saying to ISIS that they will not succeed in wiping them out.
As one Assyrian artist named Rene told me, “I say that they (Al-Qaeda, IS, etc.) want to destroy us in Iraq. I will build it up here
The Reaction of the World and Our Responsibility
One thing is clear from our interviews and study of the Iraqi Christian community is that they need help — and a lot of it. The feeling of overall abandonment by the international community is felt by not only minorities in Iraq but elsewhere in the region as well.
Perhaps, though, there is a particular responsibility in Iraq. Whatever the merits of the Iraq war were, it cannot be denied that the instability it caused has not been good for minorities living there.
Moreover it must be acknowledged that the Iraqi minorities are truly facing genocide. However, those who fled Iraq are very hopeful that they will, one day, return to their villages and rebuild their lives.
What Can Be Done?
Middle Eastern diaspora communities are motivated to help their communities back home, but the Western Christian community and the West in general has yet to wake up to this problem. We should not be fooled into thinking that this is a problem that will stay in the Middle East.
A region filled with extremists without the existence of minorities is a very dangerous prospect for the entire world over. The Islamic State has proven that it is willing to take its war to Europe and America.
The Faithkeepers’ team has come up with three main calls to action that can help Christians and other minorities in the Middle East
1. Donate: There are hundreds of thousands of Christians and other minorities that have fled their homes and are living in the direst of circumstances in refugee camps. They need food, shelter, medical and legal help and are looking for help from the international community. Your donations will go to an excellent select group of transparent organizations that Clarion Project has vetted that are helping on the ground.
2. Host a Screening: The goal of our film is to wake the world up from its slumber and create a movement to support and protect religious minorities in the Middle East. We need as many people as possible to see this film to raise awareness of the tragedy befalling the Middle East. Hosting a screening lets your family, community and world know what is happening.
3. Get the Word Out: We live in a digital age and the quickest way to get the word out is through social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) The Faithkeepers’ website has some quick and easy links that will allow you to automatically share news about the film and activism surrounding the issue.
Our ability to witness the genocide unfolding on our televisions and computers carries with it responsibility to help.
In the words of Andrew White, a pastor who runs the only Anglican church in Bagdad, Iraq, “I think people have to know that we, as minorities, are suffering great persecution, great opposition, and we need the world to stand with us.”