by Kathryn Kraft
“Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
The challenge in the words of this prayer have taken on a new weight for me after spending some time in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), getting to know Christians who are taking refuge from the so-called Islamic State, or Da’ish.
According to the International Organization for Migration, close to 1 million people fled the city of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain region during the summer of 2014, when Da’ish took control there. They didn’t flee the violence. Mosul has seen more than its fair share of conflict during the past decade, but many people chose to stay in their homes even when surrounded by fighting and instability.
This time was different. A million people fled, because they simply could not stay. Almost all of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from the Nineveh Province are Yazidi or Christians. What happened?
In the account of one gentleman from Mosul,
“Dai’sh told us to convert to Islam. But I don’t believe in changing religion. I am a Christian; that’s what I am. My children are Christian. We will never be Muslim. So then they gave us a choice. Either we stay on as dhimmis, have you heard of that? It’s when you live as a second-class citizen, with no civil rights. And you pay a tax for being a dhimmi. Or we could leave. So we left, all of us. I don’t know any Christians who stayed behind. But we fared better than the Yazidis. The Yazidis weren’t given the choice to stay or leave. They had to flee in the middle of the night, or be killed.”
I asked him if he hopes to return to Mosul some day.
“No. It’s lost to us. I won’t go back.”
Not at all?
“Well, if all the Christians go back, then maybe I will go too. But I can’t live on my own in that environment. My niece, even before all this happened, she went to a school which was almost all Muslim. She had to start veiling her head! It wasn’t a school rule, but all the other students did, and she felt pressure from her teachers. Now she is living in Canada, and can be herself. We need to be ourselves.”
I visited a camp for IDPs housing 1,800 families, and every family has a story that echoes this man’s account. The Yazidis and the Christians of the Nineveh Plain fled for sake of their lives and their identity.
Iraqi Christians may believe in Christ and read the Bible, but their identity as Christians has roots that, as a Westerner, I struggle to understand. They trace their churches to the 3rd century, when their ancestors settled in the Nineveh Plains. In their homes, they speak Syriac or Assyrian, which are dialects of Aramaic, the language Jesus Christ himself spoke. For nearly two millennia, they have built their communities in a society that was dominated first by pagan religions such as Zoroastrianism, then by Islam. During these millennia they were almost always a numerical minority, but non-Christian elites sent their children to study at Christian schools and many Islamic rulers chose a Christian as their personal physician. It was Christians who translated Greek philosophy into Arabic so that Muslims could develop new systems of education and scholarly activity.
The price of a movement that offered the impossible choice between conversion, second-class citizenship and death is hard to grasp. Christians fled with cars piled full of hastily packed suitcases, leaving their property behind to be pillaged by their former neighbors. One church leader told me that, as a child, his closest friends were Muslims, and they attended the same schools. He learned Arabic, and his Muslim friends learned Syriac. Now, those friendships are gone. I try to imagine what it would be like for my dear friend to wave me goodbye, then pillage my house and never speak with me again.
If that happened to me, I may never be able to trust anyone again. That destroyed trust is an evil of war.
I visited a school for IDPs, run by IDP teachers. They had been teachers back home, and were determined to resume education for displaced Christian and Yazidi children as quickly as possible. In the words of one priest,
“What distinguishes Iraqi Christians is our level of education. All members of a family are educated, to a high level. That makes us cultured.”
He explained that this emphasis on education has distinguished Iraqi Christians as important members of their society, allowing them to work in positions of influence that are markedly disproportionate to their small numbers, which was an estimated 3% of the population before the waves of out-migration in the past decade. Furthermore, an educated minority has helped stem extremist thinking by introducing diverse points of view in discussions of poetry, philosophy and languages from around the world.
So when the Christians were displaced by Da’ish, the first thing they did was set up school.
I asked one of the teachers if she had seen any change in her students’ behavior since they were displaced. She said the biggest change is that they are no longer able to trust. They have lost their ability to trust.
“But I can’t blame them. My trust is lost: I can no longer trust my neighbor,” she explained. “Even so, I know the trust is still there, in my heart. I just need to find it and nurture it. And that’s what I tell my students.”
Her words brought to mind the prayer,
“Forgive those who sin against us… and deliver us from evil.”
To see your friend turn on you, whether out of ill-will or simply for self-preservation, is to look evil in the face.
Many of the children I met didn’t blame their Muslim friends, though. Some sixth graders I met said they miss their school back home. I asked them why. “I miss our teachers. There were Muslim teachers there, too, not just Christian,” said one boy. I asked them if the students were also mixed religion.
“Yes! In our school, we had Muslim and Christian students. I miss that.”
After spending a week with Christians, I was torn between admiration and horror. I was impressed by how few people I met spoke in hatred of Da’ish. They did not seem inclined to rant in bitterness or anger against Islam or against their former Muslim friends. The seed of forgiveness was there. Instead, what I saw was exhaustion, frustration and disappointment. At this point, they just want to leave Iraq and start their lives over in a country where they are free to be themselves.
But even after all these conversations with Christians, my heart strings were pulled the strongest by the stories of Yazidi families. The Yazidi religion is said to pre-date Christianity and is linked to ancient Mesopotamian religions. Iraq’s Yazidis have historically lived in villages specked across the Nineveh Plains, and their average level of education is a fair bit lower than that of Christians. Nonetheless, there were influential Yazidis contributing to Iraqi society through their work in education, local politics, and other professions.
In 2014, thousands upon thousands of Yazidis were killed. The ones living in the Kurdish region now are the fortunate ones, but they are still barely making do. They lack the international network of support, both material and moral support, that the Christians have. Though exact numbers are hard to come by, it seems that fewer than half of Yazidi children are attending school, and many are living in substandard shelters without any protection from the cold mountain winds. And, unlike the Christian children, few of them chant words of forgiveness and deliverance from evil on a weekly basis.
How will they be delivered from evil, start their lives anew, then learn to forgive? One thing that has given me hope has been seeing how Iraqi Christians are sharing what they have with Yazidis who are living nearby, and how new friendships are being forged. I hope they continue to get the support they need, and that Christians around the world will pray for all the people affected by events in the Middle East.