Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention

Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention June 18, 2014

Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq’s northern sector to get some attention.

Whether it’s in time is another matter.

Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.

Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.

An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival — including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.

The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:

Iraq was estimated to have more than 1 million Christians before the 2003 invasion and topping of Saddam Hussein. Now church officials estimate only 450,000 remain within Iraq borders. Militants have targeted Christians in repeated waves in Baghdad and the north. The Chaldean Catholic cardinal was kidnapped in 2008 by extremists and killed. Churches around the country have been bombed repeatedly.

The exodus from Mosul — a Sunni-majority city that during the American presence in Iraq was an al-Qaida stronghold — has been even more dramatic. From a pre-2003 population of around 130,000 Christians, there were only about 10,000 left before the Islamic State fighters overran the city a week ago.

Abu Zeid estimated that now only 2,000 Christians remain in the city.

The article says that Kurdish fighters, known as the Peshmerga, have moved in to defend Alqosh. The Kurds, who have been fighting for independence for five decades, seem to be getting an image as heroes for their willingness to protect Christians and others.

Public Radio International reports on the Peshmerga as well. PRI says the Kurds are occupying posts in Kirkuk province, home to many Kurds, but also Arabs, Turkmens, Christians and others.

Ayub Nuri, an editor with Rudaw, the Kurdish news service, tells PRI that ISIS doesn’t attack “because they know they are no match for the well-trained and disciplined and loyal Kurdish army.” (However, Foreign Policy magazine reports that ISIS has fought Peshmerga in two Kurdish-controlled provinces.)

Some Arab media, too, have contributed. Al-Jazeera’s TV outlet America Tonight tells about Christians who have fled to St. Matthew’s Monastery near Mosul. The network notes that St. Matthew’s has served as a refuge since the fourth century, and is being pressed into similar service nowadays.

Using the name the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), a variant of ISIS, the report shows sensitivity toward Muslim and Christian factions alike:

The current crisis in Iraq has been cast as a battle between Sunnis and Shias, but Iraqis of all faiths are caught in the middle – none more so than the ancient religious minorities along the Ninevah Plains between Mosul and the Kurdish territories. To Al-Qaeda and the group it inspired, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), anyone not adhering to its hardline version of Sunni Islam is a heretic to be converted or killed.

Once the largest of Iraq’s religious minorities, the Christian community has shrunk to one-third of the size it was before Saddam Hussein was toppled. The less than 500,000 Christians left are clinging tightly to their faith.

The story stumbles slightly in covering the arrival of the new Syriac Orthodox patriarch, saying he is to Orthodox Christians “what the Pope is to Catholics.” As revered figures, yes. As ultimate rulers and arbiters of the faith, no, Orthodoxy is more conciliar.

But Al-Jazeera makes up for it with anecdotes of Christian suffering and courage. One has a man returning home from a shop, to find his father dead on a sidewalk. Another has children playing on rocks near the monastery, their former home of Mosul visible in the distance, as “inside, their worried parents drink tea and watch news of a region that has again become a battlefront.”

And Christians are still shedding blood on this land. Since 2010, dozens of priests and nuns have been killed by Al-Qaeda in Mosul, Baghdad and other cities in attacks aimed at persuading Christians to leave.

Remarkably sensitive paragraphs, don’t you think? I wish I could read more of them in American media.

France 24 covered a deployment of Peshmerga fighters “under the steeple of Bashiqa’s Syrian Orthodox Church, whose patriarch had traveled from Damascus to show support for Christians in the region.”

An especially insightful passage illustrates why peaceful communities become targets:

Bashiqa is a microcosm of Iraq. Nearly all the religions that make up the country’s sectarian mosaic live peacefully side by side. This makes it the perfect target for Islamist intolerance.

One building, which used to be a bar selling alcohol, was hit six months ago in a double car bombing. Since then there’s been a third attack on the town. Now the locals have decided to take their security into their own hands.

Other media give briefer mentions to the plight of Christians in Iraq., a Jewish news service, reports on a plea by Pope Francis for prayers for Iraq and refugees, especially Christians. The story also links to the France24 report.

Al-Arabiya has a slideshow of children at a church. The weary, wary little faces in the pictures speak volumes about what the children have already endured. There’s little text, though, and Al-Arabiya got the photos from AFP.

The media attention to the plight of Iraqi Christians is welcome and long overdue. But I have to wonder: If the media had paid this kind of attention a few years ago, could they have spared some of the Christians from being killed or driven off?

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12 responses to “Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention”

  1. Actually, Jim, there has been coverage before. Take a look at what happened after the Cathedral of Our Lady of Deliverance in Baghdad ( was bombed. There was a lot of coverage. The unfortunate thing is that the coverage only comes when there’s some spectacle to be observed. What is really needed is sustained coverage of what’s going on there with Christians and not just whenever ISIS rolls through or cathedrals are blown up or clerics are kidnapped.

    The last example is a perfect illustration of what I mean. Has anyone heard what has happened to the two Orthodox bishops who were kidnapped? Neither have I. If there’s no media coverage then there’s no collective memory, and that’s the real issue at hand.

    • Yes, I’ve seen AINA coverage, Tom. As an interested party, the organization naturally pays close attention to events in the Middle East. My column was in the context of mainstream media, which has largely brushed off the persecution until recently.

      • I provided that link to put something up there because I had forgotten the exact incident but knew that my friend and colleague, Jeff Gardner, had covered it. However, I just did a quick Google search on it and found coverage by NYT, WaPo, Guardian, BBC, NBC and Reuters. And if memory serves me correctly, coverage was wider even than that as various outlets picked up the wire stories. So my point is that, when something sensational happens, the media are all over it. When the sensation is gone, so are they.

  2. Leila Fadel reported this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition ( An excerpt: In recent days, news coverage from Iraq has focused largely on the Sunni-Shiite divide in that country. But Iraq is also home to a Christian community, which traces its origins in the earliest days of Christianity.
    During a visit to Al-Qoush, a village of low
    stone homes and churches at the foot of a mountain, we met with members
    of the committee that oversees displaced people. The committee
    was formed in 2008 when Christians were fleeing Mosul after a spate of
    killings that targeted and terrified the community. More than 260
    families fled here. In 2010, it happened again, and again Christian
    families came here or sought safe haven in other Christian villages in
    the Nineveh plains. But this time, after ISIS took over Mosul,
    and vowed in a charter to destroy shrines and monuments that go against
    their extreme version of Islam, the bulk of the displaced that came to
    al-Qoush are Muslim. Only about 40 Christian families arrived
    in al-Qoush. It is a sign of just how few Christians are left in Iraq —
    and in Mosul in particular.

    • It was a good report. However, I take exception, here as elsewhere, to describing these people only as being from the earliest days of Christianity. Actually, these are indigenous people who have been there since time immemorial – existing before the Old Testament and mentioned in the Old and New Testament. These are the people of Ashurbanipal and other ancient civilizations. Mosul/Nineveh is where God told Jonah to warn of destruction. They are a community not just because they are Christians, but because their civiliization is truly ancient.

      These are the ancient Assyrians and others among the very first folks outside the Jews who converted to Christianity. They are the ones who remained Christian after the Muslims invaded. This means they are not Arabic.

      This is the same situation as the Copts in Egypt who are the original Egyptians before the Arabic Muslim invasions. Killing off these people is killing off the remnants of civilizations that pre-date the Old Testament. Why don’t people get this?

      • Julia, you are very well-read on something very few people know or care about. For so many today (the reason people don’t get this), this kind of ancient thinking means it’s fossilized thinking. We Americans and many others in the West have left behind the understanding of our ancient roots. We only want what’s new and flashy. Leave those 6th and 7th century conflicts back in the past — behold, with the 21st century, all is new!

        • Thanks. Sometimes I think I’m the only person who remembers what I learned in World History – even the stuff in HS, much less university level.

          • I’m actually related to an Assyrian Catholic. And I’ve gotten acquainted with a Parsi – an Indian descendant of the Zoroastrians of Persia who speak Farsi, the language of Iran; these folks still practice the ancient Zoroastrian religion. They were chased out of Persia and settled in India. These people didn’t die out – they are still with us. And their culture is older than the Old Testament. I have a problem with constant references to 2,000 years as the furthest back of any culture worth saving. The Coptic, the Greek, other cultures and many others precede even the old testament. So wiping out a people sometimes means wiping out a culture that is far older than the Bible. Why do we think culture worth saving is only 2000 years old? Is nothing prior to Christianity worth saving? Would it be OK to get rid of the remaining Parsis because they aren’t Christian? There are people in the Middle East who have very ancient pre-Islamic histories who aren’t Christian – like the Druze and Yazidis and Samaritans. We appear very sectarian when we seem to only value people because they have been Christian for 2,000 years.

          • The claim that Druzes have “very ancient pre-Islamic history” would come as a surprise to most people involved, including Druzes… it is only about a thousand years old. . In the Lebanese documentary I just finished watching, Druze spokesmen insisted that they ARE Moslems.

          • Careless of me to lump them in with other groups with the intention of presenting religious groups not much known to the west to still exist. It was my understanding that they are a mash-up of Muslim and Christian and other – according to non-Druze sources.

  3. I’ve heard several reports on this. I’ve also heard about the persecution of Christians in Egypt and China. There’s coverage.

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