It might be too late to save Iraq's Christians, says novelist

Dina Ezzat, Monday 4 Aug 2014

Author of a Booker-nominated novel on the plight of Christians in Iraq, Sinan Antoon says the forced eviction of Moussal’s Christians ‘was coming’ for many years

Sinan Antoon
Sinan Antoon (Photo: Jadaliyya)

On his Facebook page at the beginning of the week, novelist and professor Sinan Antoon posted a video of an elderly Christian woman who has been recently forced to leave her house in Moussal by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria for having declined to convert to Islam.

In the remark he attached to the short video, Antoon refers to the anger this elderly woman – who was thrown out of her house at 5am by the ISIS man who denied her retirement pension and residence in the city she had lived in for all her life – directs at the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

In the video, the grieving lady, Zahra Ishak, whose life was put at great risk in a city where Christianity has lived for centuries and is now being eradicated at gun point, is blaming the failure of Al-Maliki's government to protect its citizens for the recent episode of the tragedy of Christians in Iraq.

According to Antoon, born in a Christian Iraqi family in the 1960s and currently living and teaching in New York, the tragedy of Moussal’s Christians is yet another episode of sectarianism “that is really getting at all minorities – not just Christians.”

Speaking to Ahram Online from New York over the phone, the author of ‘Oh Mary’, the novel inspired by the bloody attack at the Baghdat Sayydat Al-Nadasjat Church (the lady of our salvation) in the autumn of 2010, Antoon says that the “entire texture of Iraqi society has been subject to enormous damage.”

“What we have now is not a state, even if dictatorial; what we have is a regime that is based almost strictly on an ethnic bias; there is no citizenship – an Iraqi is not an Iraqi but rather a Shia, Sunni, Christian or Kurd or some other ethnic affiliation,” Antoon said.

According to Antoon, this sectarianism “was never there in this way.”

“Some like to argue that the regime of Saddam Hussein was a Sunni regime but they know it was not; it was a Baath regime and the members of the Baath were never just Sunnis; there were Baathi Shias who took part in the quelling of Shias in the south of Iraq; many of those who died in the years-long war with Iran were Shias; and Tarek Aziz [the prominent deputy prime minister under the toppled Iraqi president] was a Christian who did not seem to care very much about the fate of millions of Christians who had been leaving Iraq to escape the economic hardships and the security problems that came with the years of war and one of the harshest embargoes ever.”

Antoon, who acknowledges the decline of the volume of Iraqi Christians from 6 per cent in the 1950s to around 3 per cent on the eve of the US invasion, is not willing to disregard the previous history of Christian emigration. He insists, however, that it was for the most part ‘socio-economic’ based “and it was part of a wider upper and middle class emigration rather than an ethnic based emigration.”

“What we saw after the US invasion was different; we saw the US, in the simplistic Orientalist perception of its administration, perceiving and dividing the country on an ethnic basis; the Sunnis had their militias and the Shias had their militias but not the Christians; many felt they had no choice but to go,” Antoon explained.

In his ‘Oh Mary’, Antoon writes inspiring dialogue between the older Youssef and the young Maha over the chances of Christians to stay in or leave Iraq in a reflection of the ongoing debate on whether or not it is a matter of time before Christianity in Iraq becomes a thing of the past.

He documents the ‘invasion’ of ‘the army of Mohamed’ to the predominantly Christian Baghdad districts where they wrote the word ‘infidels’ on the houses of Christians and sent them threatening messages. The text all but copies the more recent accounts of Moussal where ISIS printed in red the letter ‘n’ [standing for Nassara Christians] on the houses of citizens who were given the choice to either convert to Islam, pay didjzyah (a tax for non-Muslim to be exempted from serving in the army and police) or leave the ‘ISIS land’ all together.

In the video shared this week by Antoon on his Facebook page, Zahra Ishak says, “They tell me do you convert; I said no; I am Christian and if I die I want to die Christian.”

“But the state cannot protect these citizens who simply want to stick to the faith they were born in; the state is not at all in monopoly of arms and worse still is not interested except essentially in those who subscribe to the same ethnic group of the prime minister who has been adopting extreme ethnic policies,” Antoon argued.

“Let us remember that when [former US Secretary of State] James Baker spoke [in the 1990s] about bombing Iraq back to the middle ages he actually meant that and it has been that – if not worse in many respects,” Antoon argued. He added that whatever this meant for the Christian of Iraq since the Gulf War of 1990-91 is one thing and the tragedy of the Christians of Iraq since the invasion is another.

Over the last decade over 60 of Iraq’s churches, including some historic buildings, have been attacked and burnt and hundreds of Iraq’s extremely dwindling Christian minority has been killed.

Today, the chances of many more – or even most – of Iraq’s Christian to embrace the refugee offered by some Western states might be very real, this novelist/commentator accepts.

Until the forced-eviction of Moussal’s Christians the attack on the Sayydat Al-Najat Church where close to 60 worshippers died at the hands of a radical Muslim group was the epitome of the post-US invasion plight of Iraq’s Christian.

In the closing scene of ‘Oh Mary’, Youssef, the elderly Iraqi whose national affiliation surpasses, or maybe just bypasses, his Christianity and who argues throughout his conversations with the younger emigration-seeking Maha that Christians of Iraq could and should stay in their own country, is killed during the mass and Maha who escapes the assassins escapes the church covered with blood and lives to tell his story.

“It is a sad scene; very true; it is the death of this Iraqi who believed in himself as an Iraqi and whose national faith co-existed with his religious belief,” Antoon said.

Would this be the ‘fate’ of all those remaining ‘Youssefs’? Maybe and maybe not, Antoon suggested.

It all depends, he argued, on whether the ruling regime in Iraq wants to end the sectarianism “or at least start to end it” that has been ‘institutionalised’ since the US invasion.

It also, Antoon added, would have to do with what the ‘concerned Arab countries’ want to do in dealing with the ‘radical Islamic groups’ that were started in the 1970s “in the direct collaboration between the US and some Arab regimes, especially the regime of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the Saudis” as part of the war on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

“This Afghanistan moment, which is essentially a US orchestrated moment, was the launching pad of radical Islamism; at the time [former US President] Ronald Regan used to receive the warriors in Afghanistan as ‘freedom fighters’ for the US now those are terrorists – but what about those peoples of the region what could they do? It is a big question,” Antoon argued.

He added that it is no easy challenge because for 40 years the radical Wahhabi beliefs have been widely embraced at the expense of the previously fairly dominating social integration that had for long decades brought together Christians, Muslims and for that matter Jews prior to the foundation of Israel.

There needs to be, he suggested, collective efforts of the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation “who have so far done nothing about this matter which creates a big refugee and displaced individuals problem which goes beyond the plight of Christianity in Iraq and also in other countries where ISIS and other radical groups are bypassing the state – as it includes people of other faiths.”

Antoon is highly sceptical about the political will of these organisations or for that matter their member states to act promptly. “Not so sure about it; but we are at the 11th hour and it might be too late to rescue things,” he said.

On Friday, ISIS who took control of yet another north Iraq province, Singar, forced the eviction of about 200,000 Yazdis, thus according to the UN accounts, aggregating an already huge refugees problem.


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