An Iraqi archbishop has called on the West to launch ground operations in the country to combat the Islamic State and save Christians from "genocide" by the jihadist group.
In an interview with VICE News after visiting parliamentarians and church officials in London, Bashar Warda, archbishop of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan, attributed the rise of the Islamic State to the sectarian tensions and social breakdown which followed the Iraq War. Unless there was greater military intervention, he warned, the ruins of Christianity would become just "another page in the history of this land."
Sitting in a quiet office at the Church of England's General Synod on Monday, he calmly sipped a cup of tea while trying to convey the scale of the displacement and emigration of Christians in his homeland. "It's a genocide," Warda stated. "From the first day, it's a genocide when you take the life, the past, the presence, the property of the people, it's a genocide. You keep them just alive in their bodies. All of the people who came fleeing (the Islamic State) came just with their clothes."
There were an estimated 1.5 million Christians in Iraq before the 2003 war. By July 2014, that number had dropped as low as 200,000. Many of those who are still reluctant to permanently leave the country have abandoned their homes to congregate in Erbil, to where large numbers of internally displaced people from other minorities have also fled.
The Islamic State initially told Christians they had "nothing to fear" from the militants, but the situation changed quickly once the group gained control over large swathes of territory. When it captured Mosul in July, a message was broadcast to Christians, in which they were given three options: to pay a protection tax, leave the city or be killed. Human Rights Watch reported that Islamic State militants began painting the letter "N" for Nasrani (Arabic for Christian) on their homes to designate the inhabitants as Christians and that, along with Yazidis, the Christians who stayed were barred from government jobs in the city.
Warda spoke to VICE News after addressing a meeting on Monday in the UK House of Lords, parliament's upper chamber, where he said: "Politicians, I beg you… we really do need military action."
He had also spoken at the General Synod, where he pleaded to assembled church officials for support, telling them that Iraq is facing the "extinction of Christianity as a religion and as a culture."
Warda told VICE News that he was not hopeful Western troops would be sent to fight the Islamic State directly. However, he noted that there are other forms of help that might be useful to the Iraqi government. "Everyone knows that the Iraqi army is not ready yet to fight," he said, "so we need a lot of efforts, logistics support, some no-fly zones, issues like that."
The archbishop compared the current situation for Christians in Iraq to the displacement of the country's Jews seventy years ago, saying the international community needed to be mindful of the lessons of history. "The Jewish community is an old Iraqi Jewish community," he said. "It contributed a lot to the Iraqi culture and civilisation." A Jewish minister — Sassoon Eskell — had served in the first Iraqi government, he noted. "(There were) lots of professors, doctors, qualified people," Warda continued, adding that some of Iraq's most beautiful songs had originated with its Jewish community. "When we lost them we lost a lot."
Whereas Israel had opened its doors to Iraq's Jews, no country appeared willing to do the same for its Christian community, he said. "Christians have no home to be welcomed and to take care of them, they are just wandering and waiting in Turkey and Lebanon and Jordan and that makes their life worse."
The persecution of Iraq Christians dates back to long before the Islamic State gained so much power, back to 2003, when they were viewed by many as being supportive of the US invasion. Between 2004 and 2011 a documented 70 churches were bombed or attacked and looted by al Qaeda and other unidentified groups. In 2013, 14 Christians were killed when a Christmas mass in Baghdad was targeted by a car bomb.
Asked whether he thought Christians would be safe if the Islamic State was vanquished, Warda said that realistically, the aftermath of the conflict would always be complicated. "Daesh (an Arabic term for the Islamic State) is not just a group of people, Daesh is an ideology that refuses the others. So this is an ideology that is threatening all of us in this world. Daesh is just the extreme of this. So definitely Daesh is the direct threat but we are afraid that within such circumstances such hatred of the other who is different would (still) be there."
However Warda also noted that Iraq's communities had previously lived in harmony. He said it was important that people remember that the Middle East "is not always a dark story," and historically had some of the most diverse cities and cultures in the world. "I know that the evil has a loud voice and sometimes maybe all sad news will be spread quickly, but yes I was born in Baghdad and I lived with Sunni and Shia and we were in the same classrooms and we never had any problem."
Warda said that the Islamic State had gained traction by capitalizing on the disputes and ruptures created by the 2003 Iraq war. "Daesh grew in an environment where there is denial of the other," he said.
He was not saying that Christians had a better life under Saddam Hussein, Warda stressed, but at least "there was a government, an institution."
"Yes, a dictatorship was there and there was a need for change, political change, but using arms to change was not really a very successful moment," Warda said.
Warda said that he currently has 62 Yazidi families in his diocesis, adding that Iraq's minority groups had become accustomed to helping each other. "Being a minority and a persecuted minority have taught them how to live together and really to be open to others."
During his speech to the Synod, Warda had spoken sadly of how Christians had "lost confidence in their homeland," and said that 125,000 had left their homes over the past year.
"The road to immigration has a very long queue," he said. "They will go anywhere rather than return to their home."
But speaking to VICE News, he retained a glimmer of hope for Christianity's future in the region. "It's a very difficult task but we have to stay," he said. "We have to stay and everyone is responsible in helping Christians to stay. Otherwise you would have always a troubled Middle East."
Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd