Convert to Islam, pay a religious levy or die.
Those are the conditions offered to Christians and other religious minorities in northern Iraq by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Since the Islamic State (formerly called ISIL and ISIS), a Sunni extremist group that has overrun vast swaths of the republic and declared a new caliphate, began its march from Syria toward Baghdad several months ago, most of the estimated 200,000 Christians who remained in the country have taken the only other option available and fled.
In so doing, they have left the ancient city of Mosul bereft of its ancient Christian communities for the first time in nearly two millennia.
In the U.S., our debate over religious freedom is largely a matter for litigation and punditry. We worry that inclusion of the words “under God” in our voluntary Pledge of Allegiance is oppressive to nonbelievers. We fight over what role closely held corporations like Hobby Lobby should be forced to play in providing specific types of contraception for employees. Those arguments are not insignificant and implicate legitimate matters of conscience.
But not even in our darkest nightmares could we imagine the kind of barbarism that is reportedly occurring in Iraq — beheadings, kidnappings, rapes, crucifixions and other atrocities inflicted on men, women and children, unrestrained cruelty simply for adhering to one’s chosen faith.
Yet until last week, when President Barack Obama belatedly ordered targeted airstrikes on Islamic State strongholds as well as humanitarian aid for religious and ethnic refugees, many of whom have fled to Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, the U.S. has been mostly silent on the nascent genocide that seeks to rid the world of one of its oldest Christian communities.
As USA Today columnist Kirsten Powers points out, it was nearly two months after Mosul fell to the Islamic State that the administration finally condemned the assault on religious minorities. “An Iraqi Christian leader lamented to me that his people would have to convert to get the administration’s attention,” she wrote.
Even Pope Francis, a paragon of peace and pacifism, appeared more hawkish than the president. A strongly worded statement from the Vatican implored Muslim leaders to upbraid the actions of the Islamic State: “All must be unanimous in condemning unequivocally these crimes and in denouncing the use of religion to justify them. If not, what credibility will religions, their followers and their leaders have? What credibility can the interreligious dialogue that we have patiently pursued over recent years have?”
It’s fair to wonder: What credibility will the U.S. have if it fails to do the same?
Arguments that the U.S. bears some responsibility for the deteriorating situation are not without merit. The U.S. invasion and later withdrawal without an agreement on the status of forces arguably precipitated the current disaster. They also make our obligation to intervene now even stronger.
Still, the sequence of events that lead to the current situation is too complex to trace directly to the U.S. invasion. As one French politician wisely noted, given the broad instability of the Middle East, Arab Springs — in all their hopeful idealism — typically become Islamist Autumns.
And the leaves are certainly falling.
The imagery of centuries-old churches now shadowed by the black flag of the Islamic State and ancient Christian archaeological structures razed into dust defies imagination. And the scenes of Iraqi Christians who have inhabited these Iraqi cities since the first century fleeing their ancestral homelands by the thousands, likely never to return, are heartbreaking.
But the long-term consequences of the Islamic State’s rise to power should be equal cause for alarm. Religious scholar Mark Movsesian understandably worries, “What ISIS has done in Mosul is a worrying hint of Islamism’s possible future.” Other militant groups that espouse extreme views of Islam, from Hamas to al Qaeda, are watching not only to gauge the group’s success but also the world’s response to such unfettered destruction.
Recounting his meeting with Pope Francis in March, Obama “reaffirmed [to the pontiff] that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.”
Perhaps with his decision to authorize airstrikes and provide humanitarian assistance, the president will live up to his word.
We can only pray.