Yesterday, I had a succession of texts from one of the priests in my local parish, Mgr Nizar, who heads the Iraqi Catholic church in London, asking, with increasing urgency, what could be done for the Christians in Quaraqosh, in Ninevah, where most of Iraq’s remaining Christians live. ‘The situation is very bad,’ he wrote. ‘200,000 Christians are displaced. All the Christian cities fallen in the hands of ISIS.’ Another read: ‘Our cities are empty now and the people on the street sleeping and nowhere to go.’ The last time we spoke, he was agonised about the Christians displaced from Mosul, including most of his own family, under the threat of forced conversion or death by the army of the Islamic state, the one that several hundred young British Muslims have already joined.
Well, it seems his prayers have been answered, in some style. President Obama has announced that the US will undertake air attacks against ISIS forces on the grounds that the US consulate in the nearby Kurdish territory is threatened. As he makes clear though, he also has a straightforward invitation to intervene from the Iraqi government and besides, the US has a duty to prevent massacre. It turns out it’s not just Christians under threat but Yazidis too. They’re a shadowy community said to derive from the teachings of Nestorian Christians – who were a bit iffy about a couple of aspects of the Incarnation – but with an assortment of other beliefs including the transmigration of souls and some aspects of Islam. In fact, the plain of Ninevah is a kind of Lost World in the Conan Doyle sense, where some of the sheer diversity of religion in the first millennium is preserved into our own, blander, time. The followers of John the Baptist have their own sect in Iraq too. Some, like the Christians of Ninevah, trace their origins to apostolic times, to the Apostle Thomas since you ask, some are more recent, but they all risk obliteration by ISIS, which goes out of its way to record for its followers its annihilation of non-approved religious monuments.
Well, thank God for Obama’s intervention; it can’’t happen soon enough, even if it just starts out as humanitarian intervention. I was all against British and American involvement in Syria on the side of the Free Syrian Army but on this, it’s right and just. Mostly it’s because the west owes these people. Under the ghastly Saddam Hussein there were about 1.5 million Christians in Iraq; before the advent of ISIS, there were about 400,000; now there are…dunno, half that? Their ancient strongholds have fallen. And although Sir Malcolm Rifkind has this morning in an interview on the Today programme suggested that the Western invasion of Iraq was not entirely to blame, he conceded it did play a large part in the situation that ISIS now exploits. Don’t misunderstand: I do know that Muslims are numerically the greatest victims of the present war, but it’s more devastating to the other minorities in proportion to their numbers.
As I say, we owe these people, though Obama is right to draw the line at the deployment of ground troops. There are already troops on the ground, Iraqi ones, though their utter uselessness was evident in the fall of Mosul, when the commanding officers took off by helicopter leaving the cream of US weaponry to fall to ISIS. Kurdish fighters are another story.
But although I think we should be throwing humanitarian assistance at the refugees of all communities, and backing the US military intervention, I think we should hold it right there. I do not think we should be admitting refugees to Britain as some British bishops are urging the government to do. The aim should be to preserve what is left of Christianity and the other embattled communities in situ, not disperse them over Europe. Once here, they simply do not return. We’ve seen the same thing with Palestinian Christians: they leave, they don’t go back. Much better to support those communities where they are and enable them to return to their homes when the happy time comes that ISIS is seen off. And if it takes US air bombardment to do that, and if foreign jihadists are killed in the process, well, that’s the fortunes of war for you. But no refugees please; that would complete the annihilation of religious minorities that the Iraqi war initiated.